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The COVID-19 chasm: Some groups take their work outside

Schools, churches, and businesses find creative ways to protect against the virus without closing down

The COVID-19 chasm: Some groups take their work outside

A fifth grade class in Bad Krozingen, Germany. (Philipp von Ditfurth/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

When classrooms became hot spots for tuberculosis transmission among children more than a century ago, doctors and the Providence, R.I., school board opened the first fresh-air school in an abandoned brick building on Jan. 27, 1908. Despite the cold, teachers kept the windows open through the winter. Children warmed themselves by staying wrapped in blankets with heated stones at their feet.

Within two years, 65 more fresh-air schools had opened around the country. A photo from 1912 shows children bundled up in the sunshine on a New York roof during an art class. In another from 1915, children sit, books open, at desks on the deck of a ferry boat. A hazy New York City skyline looms behind them.

Fast-forward a century, and research shows the novel coronavirus shares at least one similarity with tuberculosis: It becomes less contagious in the open air. While many Americans fight over pandemic lockdowns, some leaders at schools, churches, and businesses have eschewed all-or-nothing approaches and found innovative ways to operate while trying to limit coronavirus spread.

Like most schools across the country, Mater Amoris Montessori School in Ashton, Md., finished the 2019-20 school year with remote classes. School head Alicia Davis Enright doesn’t want to do that again: “The priority is bringing children back to school.” 

So she and her staff tested an outdoor setup in June. They put up canopy tents in a grassy area on the school’s property and placed colorful furniture, beanbags, and kid-sized tables and chairs in the makeshift shelter. They intend to rent larger tents with more room for social distancing and are considering installing outdoor sinks and using tents that accommodate heaters for winter months. Reduced classroom sizes will allow students to distance if weather forces class indoors. 

Schools that usually incorporate outdoor education plan to do more. Andy Zawacki, head of Arborbrook Christian Academy in Matthews, N.C., says the school has long embraced 20th-century educator Charlotte Mason’s motto: “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” Now the academy is investing even more money in building outdoor shelters. Parents and staff pitched in to install fabric shades so students can sit outside without exposure, and the school is awaiting approval to build a pergola to add extra cover for picnic tables where students eat lunch almost every day. Other plans include bringing electricity and whiteboards outside and possibly installing fire pits.

Some classes can’t happen outdoors, so administrators made contingency plans: Teachers will focus on keeping grades from mixing with other years to limit exposure. Arborbrook will require students ages 11 and up to wear masks indoors. 

Seven students withdrew from the school because of the plans, but Arborbrook’s decision to keep teaching in person has drawn new students: The academy will nearly be at capacity for the coming semester. “We’re doing the best we can to have an educational environment that works for kids, and that means being live, in person,” Zawacki said.

Most public schools plan to implement a rotational model to their classrooms. The Cherry Hill Public School District in New Jersey is adopting a hybrid schedule for students: Half will attend school on one day, and the other half will come the next. The group that doesn’t come will work online. 

Some colleges and universities are following a similar model. In June, for example, Stanford University announced plans to rotate undergraduate students each quarter, allowing half to be on campus in a given quarter while others take online courses.

Houston’s Rice University is also preparing to offer outdoor instruction (in addition to online classes). The school is installing four semipermanent tent structures as open-air meeting places where up to 50 students can meet for classes or campus clubs. It’s planning for five more open-sided tents accommodating up to 30 students each.


Mater Amoris Montessori (Handout)

MANY CHURCHES HAVE PRIORITIZED meeting in person through the summer. In Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Parkside Church attendees resumed in-person gatherings at the end of June by moving evening services outdoors. They still livestream morning services but invite attendees to come Sunday nights with blankets and chairs to the church’s lawn. Before the coronavirus, the Sunday evening service could draw 800 to 1,400 attendees. The first Sunday back, that number was around 1,300. “I think maybe there’s a little bit of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ going on,” said Jonathan Cameron, one of Parkside’s pastors.

Leaders at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota found a different solution. Each of its three campuses normally can seat about a thousand churchgoers per service, but state pandemic rules cap gatherings at 250. Bethlehem now requires attendees to register for the services online to stay under 250 and social distance once there. One campus added a service to accommodate more people.

About 1,000 people come to the in-person services each weekend. The rest continue to watch the livestreamed services—something Bethlehem Baptist started doing just as the lockdowns began in March. 

SHUTDOWNS HIT RESTAURANTS especially hard: One report estimated 16,000 have closed permanently since March. Takeout was the only way Sammy Bajraktarevic could keep Luce, his Italian restaurant in Middletown, Conn., open during the spring lockdowns. But before outdoor dining restrictions lifted on May 20, Bajraktarevic called the Middletown City Hall about a special permit for putting a tent in his parking lot and seating more customers.

Cities across the country have turned to temporary permits like Middletown’s to help local restaurants during the pandemic. Austin, Texas, rolled out a similar permit program in June, as have Dallas and Atlanta-area cities Brookhaven and Dunwoody. Houston’s City Council is one of the latest to consider allowing restaurants to convert parking lots into outdoor dining areas. 

Within a day of applying, Luce received the permit. Bajraktarevic and his staff spent 10 hours setting up the parking lot before a grand reopening on May 20. They erected a 30-by-60-foot white tent in the lot and filled it with tables and chairs. To maintain the restaurant’s luxury dining experience, they hung plants and covered tables with white cloths. Bajraktarevic said it’s attracted new clientele, even while some customers stay away: “People passing through town—there is no way they will miss it.”

On June 17, another phase of reopening allowed Luce Restaurant to start seating patrons indoors at 50 percent capacity. But business still isn’t the same. Adding the outdoor seating was “enough to keep us in business,” Bajraktarevic said. But come October, it may get too cold to keep outdoor seating. “If I can’t use the tent … it would be much harder.”  

Leah Hickman

Leah Hickman

Leah is a reporter for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @leahmhickman.