By ALAN SHACKLETON
As students return to elementary and high school classes across Toronto, an East York school is taking outdoor learning to the next level as the education system finds ways to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along with numerous other safety precautions being taken by schools including the wearing of masks, physical distancing, and high levels of sanitization, outdoor classrooms are one of the solutions school boards across the province are using to keep students and staff safe from the virus.
Secord Elementary School on Barrington Avenue, northeast of Main Street and Danforth Avenue, has 11 outdoor classrooms set up on its property, all of them provided with stumps donated by local arborists for students to sit on or use as desks.
Principal George Vlahos said much of the credit for the creation of the outdoor classrooms goes to parent Phil Pothen and the members of the school council and the community who helped make it happen prior to Secord opening its doors to students last week.
“Parents reached out to me and quickly got together on a plan,” said Vlahos of conversations he was having with parents in late July once it became apparent that schools in Ontario would reopen to students in the fall.
Pothen, a parent of students at the school, a member of the parent council and a planning lawyer, was able to come up with a plan for where to locate the outdoor classrooms on the school’s property. He was also able to establish a connection with the arborists to provide the clean, dry stumps for the outdoor classrooms.
“Parents spent a couple of days getting the schoolyard mapped out and getting the logs ready,” said Vlahos. “Another parent got us some plywood, painted it and now we have outdoor blackboards attached to the fence. It was a big team and community effort, and it could not have happened without the parents and community who really came out for us.”
A Junior Kindergarten to Grade 5 school, Secord had 660 students attending prior to the March shutdown of the school system in Ontario due to COVID-19. At this moment they have 400 students returning to classes, said Vlahos.
Of the 260 not returning, some have obviously decided to take the online learning option offered by the Toronto District School Board, but others may have moved from the neighbourhood or taken the private school route, he said.
“They either went to online or moved or went to a different school. We just don’t know why they did not come back, but obviously COVID is a big reason.”
Safety was obviously the main concern of parents as they decided on whether their children would attend school in person or online this fall.
Vlahos pointed out that parents will have a chance to re-examine their decision at the end of this month.
“You are not locked into making a decision now for the entire year,” he said.
The changes will be implemented as of the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.
Vlahos said people should be confident in the work the school system is doing to prevent the spread of the virus. “We want to instill confidence in our school and confidence in our public school system,” he said.
Safety is also a major concern for school staff members. Secord has 30 teachers, 12 lunch room supervisors, two child and youth workers, four educational assistants, six early childhood educators, three special needs assistants, two vice principals, two secretaries, and five caretakers.
Vlahos said taking the proper measures to stop the spread of the virus is the responsibility of everyone who is part of the school community — staff, students and their parents.
“For parents the number one thing is to screen,” their children for COVID-19 symptoms before sending them to school, he said.
School staff also screens, and they “check and verify” that students are not showing symptoms both by asking questions and by observation.
“That’s the number one way of mitigating the spread of the virus,” said Vlahos.
Secord also has designated entry and exit points and one-way halls and stairways to avoid crowding.
Along with lots of hand sanitizer and handwashing after bathroom visits, the school has also set up a handwashing station for students coming in from outdoor classes.
Vlahos said there will be three portable fish-cleaning tables with their own sink, tap and spray hose for the use of the students and staff. Caretakers have hooked the tables up to the school’s outdoor water supply.
“That was thinking outside of the box,” said Vlahos.
A visit by Beach Metro News to Secord on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 17, saw eight classes taking place outside on what was a lovely late-summer day.
Vlhaos said staff members are embracing the outdoor learning opportunities, and for a number of teachers at the school it is an extension of what they were already doing with their students.
Some teachers at the school had already made outdoor learning a big part of their teaching in past years, including taking classes on visits to nearby Taylor Creek Park on a regular basis.
“They do some pre-teaching in the indoor classroom prior to going outside and doing an outdoor class with physical distancing,” he said.
Vlahos said many of the students have not seen their classmates in months and though it was only the first week they seemed happy to be back at school and enjoying the outdoor classes as well.
“I think the kids really like it. It’s different, and kids will make the best of the situation they have been given,” he said. “Our students have been out of class since March 15 and most of them have had no extra-curricular activities outside of school in that time in the community. This is the first time a lot of them have had socializing with non-family members in months.”
Vlahos said that along with improving safety, the outdoor classes also show the community that the school is active, busy and engaging.
“We’re visible to everybody in the neighbourhood showing that the use of the property is extensive. The community can seeing this learning happening and there’s lots of support for it,” he said.
“We have great school spirit and pride, and there’s a real sense of community ownership of the school and our kids feel welcome and proud here.”
Vlahos said the outdoor learning will be a part of the school day for as long as the weather will possibly allow both for the remainder of this year and next.