After Montclair schools pivoted from a hybrid reopening to remote in September due to ventilation concerns, a group of parents began pushing for the creation of outdoor learning spaces.

Outdoor learning plans, as well as student mental health and the safety of reopening schools, were the focus of a special town hall meeting for parents on Oct. 1. 

Faye Lederman and Carolyn Corbran, two parents who are among those advocating for outdoor learning, co-hosted the town hall.

Lederman is one of a group of parents from Edgemont who put together an outdoor learning proposal for the schools. Corbran organized a petition calling for the schools to institute outdoor learning. 

In a survey conducted by the district over the summer, 70 percent of parents preferred having their children in the classroom at least part of the time.

The New Jersey Education Association was among the organizations calling for the school year to begin remotely, stating that reopening the schools in September would put students and staff at risk. 

Eleven schools across the state that have reopened for at least hybrid learning have reported COVID-19 outbreaks, affecting a total of 43 people, both teachers and students.

None of the affected schools is in Essex County. 

At the Sept. 21 Board of Education meeting, parents told board members about stresses resulting from virtual learning, especially for young children. Lederman and the other parents presented their plan for tents and other outdoor learning spaces at Montclair’s elementary and middle schools. 

“It came from a place of simply wanting a learning environment for my kids that was happy, and didn’t revolve around tears and upset and anguish,” Lederman said. 

In response to parents’ comments, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said that the district was aware of the proposal involving tents, and that the district was considering the idea of outdoor learning. 

Lederman said that she was disappointed that school districts in other towns, and independent schools like the Montclair Cooperative School, were exploring outdoor learning, but the Montclair schools had not. 

Ana Younghusband, the head of school at the Montclair Cooperative School, told Montclair Local that the hybrid and outdoor learning model was very popular with students, teachers and families. 

At Montclair Kimberley Academy, the primary school campus has a large outdoor tent where students can go to take “mask breaks” during the day, or have socially distanced outdoor lunch breaks. 

But the discussion of outdoor learning, including the proposal for tents, has not been met positively in some cases in Montclair. 

“This issue has garnered a lot of very aggressive negative attention, and frankly a lot of stonewalling,” Lederman said.

She called for the Oct. 1 meeting as a follow-up to the BOE meeting.

Child psychologist Demetria Delia said the pandemic was exacting a heavy mental health toll on children, who are suffering from not being in contact with friends, grandparents and other people in their lives. In addition, she said, parents are struggling with balancing virtual learning with jobs, chores and other responsibilities. 

“Children suffer when parents suffer. I can’t stress this enough,” Delia said. 

For younger children entering school for the first time, she said, online learning was not an ideal environment, and affected their ability to pay attention and absorb information. 

She noted that children don’t show signs of depression or stress the same way adults do, because they don’t have the words to do so. They may be irritable, have trouble sleeping or stop eating, she said. Some children may have temper tantrums, which in turn will have adults telling them to stop it. 

In addition to fresh air and a lower risk of virus transmission, the benefits of outdoor education include reduced stress in students and an improved ability to focus, said landscape architect Jennifer Nitzky, who is involved with Green Schoolyards America (GSA). To help deal with COVID-19, GSA has assisted school districts in using outdoor learning as a Plan A, with indoor and remote education being viewed as a Plan B. The planning includes finding low-cost seating and materials to set up spaces, making plans for inclement weather, and using local parks as additional education venues. 

Nitzky said 152 schools are currently participating in the Green Schoolyards initiative, including 32 in New York state and eight in New York City. 

If Montclair signed on to the Green Schoolyards project, it would likely be the first district in New Jersey to do so, she said. 

“If we can test it out, use baby steps, it can probably lead to greater implementation,” she said. 

Inevitably there are times during the day when children will not have masks on, such as when they’re eating lunch or having snacks. Even having those activities outside would be a step in the right direction, said parent and nurse practitioner Chris Vasallo. 

And lunch and snacks could be eaten outdoors in most kinds of weather if the right shelters and structures were in place. Vasallo also suggested having an outdoor space where teachers could gather. 

BOE member Alfred Davis said the board would bring up the subject of outdoor learning at its next executive session, scheduled for Oct. 7. 

“If there’s a will, there’s a way, and if there’s no will, there’s no way,” Lederman said.