outdoor school ontario

Toronto schools will be allowed to use city parks for outdoor classes

As residents buzz about Ontario's newly released plan for back-to-school in September, many are still feeling apprehensive about sending kids into classrooms despite safety measures like cohorts, masks and social distancing.

Doug Ford and his team have reassured teachers, parents and students that Ontario has the best plan for the academic year in the whole country, reiterating in his daily press conferences that contrary to some people's concerns about class sizes, ours are still smaller than other provinces and we will be allocating the most money per pupil come fall.

But some are still finding ways that Ontario's proposal could be improved, and are insisting that Ford heed more of the suggestions set out by experts at Sick Kids Hospital in new guidelines that the province apparently referenced when planning for the 2021-2022 school year.

One of the key takeaways of the Sick Kids report is limiting class sizes to as few students as possible, and also moving classes outdoors, where ventilation is good and space is ample enough for physical distancing — something other parts of the world are likewise looking at to help mitigate the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

"Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case," the document reads. "Where needed, the use of non-traditional spaces should be explored... educators should be asked to assess and incorporate outdoor learning opportunities as weather permits."

"Transmission of the virus will likely be attenuated in outdoor settings and outdoor play and learning have many benefits for children and youth," it continues.

And, Toronto Mayor John Tory is taking this advice to heart, revealing in his presser on Monday that he will be letting school boards use city parks and public green spaces for classes if they so choose.

"All of the city parks are open to their use and available for classes to use without a permit," he said about helping to meet the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board's space needs.

The concept of utilizing outdoor spaces as classrooms certainly isn't new, and was actually the basis of a former Toronto institution called the High Park Forest School, which was built in the 1910s for sick children with the understanding that the outdoors provide sunlight, fresh air, good venilation and an environment generally conducive to good physical and mental health.

Ford said at a media briefing last week that he supports the idea of getting kids outdoor during school hours "as much as possible."

There is, of course, Ontario's winter months to be taken into account, but given that outdoor recess is still very much a thing throughout the year in the province and that schools in Nunavut can regularly incorporate outdoor learning into their curricula, then surely we can, too.

"There are many in the southern part of Canada who are doing this on a routine basis already. It just takes a little while for people to get used to that. That's new, and I'm going to argue a new and improved normal of being outside," a representative from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education told the CBC last Wednesday.

Beyond potentially preventing the spread of the virus, spending time in the outdoors has been proven to have countless benefits for people of any age, including helping to boost the immune system.

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