Considerations for ‘learning outside the classroom’ under COVID-19 restrictions
Drafted 15th May 2020
Opening the school gates to more than the current few vulnerable pupils and children of key workers will undoubtedly raise many questions about how to operate as safely and within the current guidelines as possible within a school setting. Consideration for social distancing, enhanced hygiene and reduced contact with surfaces that others may also come into contact with, while also remembering we are working with children, some as young as 4! Not an easy task and of course everyone’s priority will always be the safety and wellbeing of children.
Across all school operations, there is an enormous amount to consider but this article is going to focus on ‘learning outside the classroom’, by which we mean formal or informal activity for pupils outside of school buildings such as PE/sport, traditionally indoor classes delivered outdoors, team games/activities and break times. Of course each school will operate differently and so the issues highlighted here won’t necessarily fit your school perfectly, but we hope it will prove useful in assisting your planning.
The virus and the outdoors
It is widely documented (and is common sense) that in general terms, so long as social distancing is adhered to, the risk of contracting the virus outside is lower than when indoors. Outdoor spaces large enough for individuals to socially distance allow suspended particles that might contain the virus (and any other germs!) to disperse into lower concentrations and therefore hopefully reduce the likelihood of infection. So getting outdoors is to be encouraged, and not just for what you’d usually go outdoors for; we should be more creative than that in the current climate.
“The place of learning outside the classroom and the benefits for mental health and well-being will become more apparent than ever before and school leaders will be searching for ways in which to deepen the learning experience.”
Steve Dool, Chair Council for Learning Outside the Classroom April 2020
How the outdoors can reduce the impact of restrictions in schools
Classrooms will be different places to what we have become accustomed to, at least for the time until a vaccine or treatment is found. Fewer seats, fewer children, more restrictions on pupil movement around class and school, restrictions on staff moving between classes, surfaces that can’t be touched, items that can’t be shared and as a result, normal school activities that will need to change.
It therefore makes sense to use the outdoor space as wisely and frequently as possible to allow children to have some freedom (albeit at 2m distance from others). While venturing off-site is sadly not likely to be possible for the immediate future, we can use the space available in school grounds to bring lessons to life. Deliver assemblies outdoors, teach some classes outdoors and eat packed lunches outdoors. This will be a welcome break from the confines of the new format classroom.
In time of course, we recommend that schools consider inviting outdoor education specialists into school to deliver structured on-site team activities and they are currently busy adapting their programmes to suit the new restrictions. Outdoor activity centres and adventurous activity providers employ highly qualified staff that bring a huge variety of skills and enthusiasm, and the benefits to pupils of such activity is widely documented. Of course, they are all DBS checked and have safeguarding training so could be a temporary additional workforce to help schools on days when more activity could be delivered on site. Sadly, many of these residential activity centres have been unable to operate for some months and it is in schools’ interests that they are able to reopen when the current situation allows.
We should not underestimate the significant benefit that such activities can have on young people, especially as they emerge from lockdown and start socialising again in person rather than through a screen. There’s likely to be a range of new mental health, fear and confidence issues that outdoor education is widely proven to assist with, so arguably the role of outdoor education should be greater than ever before.
General considerations for venturing ‘outdoors’
Follow the official guidance and advice on managing COVID-19 from:
- DfE COVID-19 helpline: Call 0800 046 8687 (8am-6pm Mon-Fri) or email DfE.email@example.com
- Non-emergency call NHS 111 or in an emergency only call 999
There are other organisations that also produce a range of guidance and support for schools and who specialise in this area.
- afPE – Association for Physical Education
- IOL – Institute for Outdoor Learning. https://www.outdoor-learning.org/Good-Practice/Develop-your-Organisation/Outdoor-Learning-in-Schools/Teaching-Outdoors
- CLOtC – Council for Learning Outside the Classroom
- OEAP – Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel
At time of writing this, specific guidance available is somewhat limited that is of practical use to schools and given the timings involved, we hope the following will be of some use in the meantime:
COVID is not the only risk
Schools are obviously very adept at managing groups safely outside of the classroom and have many risk assessments in place for this. It is important that these risk assessments and general common sense is applied in adapting practices to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions so that previously controlled risks are not left uncontrolled as a result of these changes. An example of this might be where school gates are left open for extended periods of time to accommodate staggered arrival and departures that inadvertently allow members of the public access to the site while children are playing outside, thereby potentially increasing the security or safeguarding risk.
Consider the COVID-specific risks
Once you’ve agreed your management plans in response to COVID, it might be easier to produce a COVID-19 specific risk management plan rather than go through the lengthy process of updating all of your various risk assessments that you might then need to unpick at a later stage.
This is likely to include the provision of additional handwashing stations and it might be best to position these outdoors to avoid slippery floors, creating additional pinch points indoors and so they can be accessed while outside. Outdoor event style products could be purchased for this or even improvised solutions could be devised.
Also remember that any drinking fountains should be managed – ideally turned off and taped off to prevent access (ideally pupils should bring water bottles from home).
Onsite vs offsite
It is likely that under the current restrictions, schools will not operate off site visits of any type due to the increased risks and complications this involves. In the early stages, restrictions are also likely to preclude visitors being allowed on to school site (you may decide this should include parents) but over time, we should expect these restrictions to be reviewed and relaxed. Schools’ focus at this time will naturally be on supporting pupils in their return to school and when the time is right, to kick-start the curriculum. However, the benefits of educational visits as part of the overall school ‘package’ are significant and as soon as public safety allows, we recommend that schools re-engage with their pre-COVID off site visit programme. It may seem soon in the current situation, but it would be worth liaising with trip providers and activity centres to understand their future plans and what might be available in the longer term. Educational Visits Coordinators should be well placed to coordinate this in the first instance.
Keep to the bubble
In order to maintain the benefit of all the good work in classrooms to socially distance, when classes step outside they will need to do so in the same group and with the same teacher where possible. This sort of ‘distancing by design’ through careful planning and timetable management is better than using physical barriers and signs but clearly, schools are a dynamic environment with the range of different challenges – and of course lots of children present! Therefore, where school site geography allows, it might be beneficial to divide your site up into zones and each group (or ‘bubble’ as they have been termed i.e. a group of up to 15 children and their teaching staff) stays in their dedicated zone. This will further help reduce accidental social mixing. This could include allocating specific facilities to each zone, such as toilets, corridors and exits. These zones could also extend to outside areas with the use of natural boundaries where possible or temporary ones such as cones or barrier tape (either adhesive on the ground or non-adhesive suspended as a physical boundary). Clearly it will be necessary for some boundaries to be staffed at breaks to prevent cross over. Due to the increased hygiene regime and increased hand washing, additional washing and bathroom facilities may be necessary in order to reduce crowding in the more conveniently located bathrooms used by students when they come back into the buildings. Portable event-style sinks may need to be installed to facilitate this, especially at entrances from playgrounds, field etc.
For specific information on the safe delivery of PE under the COVID-19 restrictions, please check with afPE or sports coaching governing bodies for their latest guidance.
In the initial phase of opening, schools may decide that it is not possible to offer the normal PE curriculum, however there is likely to be some form of physical exercise you can offer safely while maintaining social distancing, even if nothing more than spaced out Joe Wicks style exercise classes or some athletics training!
When planning such provision, consult with PE staff to conduct activity specific COVID-19 risk assessment. This plan should obviously avoid any contact between people and also equipment that might involve shared contact (such as balls, shared equipment or other items passed between people). If any equipment is used, it should be sterilize-wiped before being stored for reuse. Sadly this will clearly prevent schools from operating many of the usual sports for the time being.
Another consideration will be changing rooms, which will create a pinch point for social distancing and shared contact surfaces. Therefore, if running any PE provision, ask pupils to arrive in their school sports kit on the appropriate day to avoid this issue entirely.
As you are likely to be using any large halls for teaching or dining overflows, it is likely that you will either not be able to provide wet weather sports provision or simply the class will get wet. However, if the class does get wet, consider how they will change into dry clothes without all crowding into changing rooms.
With improved weather, taking classes outside to teach will be a great idea. If you have divided the site into zones, this will enable multiple classes to be taught outside at once with reduced risk of mixing. Many lessons can be adapted to be taught outside and the excellent Council for Learning Outside the Classroom provide a range of resources for different subjects and Key Stages https://www.lotc.org.uk/resources/lotc-resource-packs-free-downloads-for-members/
Outdoor classes should ideally be timetabled as moving around school should be minimised where possible to avoid risk of mixing ‘bubbles’ and frequency of touching any communal contact surfaces. Spaces will need to be risk assessed considering the ‘regular’ risks in addition to those connected to COVID. Consider the need for sunscreen (provided from home, not shared), the location of wasps nests, any hazelnut trees for nut allergy students and any other site specific risks. The facilities and ground staff should be familiar with these and should be consulted when assessing potential risks. You might want to look at erecting a simple tarpaulin shelter and possibly relocate some of the removed chairs from classrooms due to reduced numbers. However, one of the benefits of teaching outside is the reduced number of surfaces to sterilise, so the benefits of adding more facilities into a space should be considered against the additional cleaning this will generate.
While the ‘bubble’ is outside, you could use the access to space to enable the class to think differently by setting team challenges or team-building tasks that they can complete with social distance in mind. These activities can be used to help support their emotional health after lockdown, building skills such as communication, teamwork, resilience and problem solving.
Once schools are able to invite visitors in to school, as already described above, these tasks can be facilitated by outdoor education practitioners to run team-building activities and leadership tasks before you are able to visit them in outdoor centres and offsite camps. Experienced practitioners will have equipment they can bring with them and will use the space you have creatively. This could even be coordinated with the activity provider to ensure that there are planned developmental links between the on-site activity and the future off site visit to their centre with continuity of activity staff and learning outcomes.
Outdoor play/break times
The challenge with break times will clearly be preventing pupils from defaulting to their usual play activities, which may no longer be acceptable due to COVID restrictions. This will need pre planning and risk assessing specifically – most likely to include:
- How to manage social distancing. Control measures might include – keeping inside the bubbles and within zones if allocated, staff allocated to each zone or bubble to supervise and remind children of the new rules and staggering breaks to ensure there is space for bubbles to remain separate.
- Reduce contact surface touching. Control measures might include – removing any play equipment that is accessible and removable and preventing access to non-movable items such as climbing frames where it is not possible to sanitize between use.
To avoid increasing risk in the event of a first aid situation outside, consider providing first aid qualified teachers with basic first aid kits which should include PPE (masks, gloves, goggles/shield and sanitiser gel) for use while treating the injured person. Alternatively they could be stationed at secure first aid points outside (and around school) accessible to multiple first aid staff. Ideally first aid kits would also be equipped with additional infection control items including gloves, aprons, masks and CPR face shield plus a non-touch thermometer to check temperatures of any children feeling unwell.
Consult with school nurse or other registered medical practitioner and ensure all first aiders are briefed on the following:
Guidance for first aid responders
Medically qualified staff should of course follow their registered body guidelines on infection control and brief other first aid staff of any control measures. Individuals displaying COVID-19 symptoms, where it is possible, should be moved to the dedicated COVID-19 sick room to apply first aid without coming into contact with additional people or touching surfaces. Where this is not possible, first aider should wear PPE before treating casualty. Call 999 ambulance if necessary.