Alicia Heyburn, director of Teens to Trails, discusses outdoor learning opportunities with Tim Gagnon, left, assistant principal of Brunswick High School and Trent Hutchinson, environmental science teacher. Behind them is an outdoor amphitheater already well-suited for the objective. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Walking around the Brunswick High School campus, along the trails, past the athletic fields and the budding orchard, Alicia Heyburn sees opportunities for outdoor learning everywhere. 

With a few overturned buckets here, a tent there or some unused desks, a patch of grass or an empty courtyard has the potential to become an alfresco classroom — something school officials and Heyburn, the director of Brunswick-based nonprofit Teens to Trails, are keen to open up. 

In less than a month, Brunswick students will start a school year that looks very different from the past — one shaped by the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a newly adopted hybrid model, elementary and middle school students will be divided into cohorts and return to the classroom two days per week, and high school students for one day each week. All other days they will learn remotely through synchronous (live) and asynchronous (independent) instruction. When in school, they will be required to keep at least 6 feet of separation between others, wear a mask and practice increased personal hygiene and sanitation. 

Teacher Trent Hutchinson, Brunswick High School Assistant Principal Tim Gagnon and Teens to Trails Director Alicia Heyburn follow a trail at the high school that leads to the outdoor classroom. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

With these parameters in place, the district is looking to take advantage of outdoor learning opportunities to help reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus and allow students and teachers to have safe, possibly mask-free time outside. 

Officials looked to Heyburn as the head of an organization dedicated to connecting teenagers with the outdoors to help find these spaces. She will visit each campus, tour the grounds with administrators, teachers and custodial staff among others to take measurements and make an inventory of existing and possible locations. Officials will need to consider the distance from the school, the shade and wind, accessibility, and Wi-Fi connectivity for synchronous learners. Heyburn will deliver a report to administration Wednesday. 

“There are intentional outdoor learning spaces (in Brunswick) but they’re not used enough because we get in the habit of climbing off the bus and going into the school,” she said. “There are fabulous spaces available, we’ve just forgotten how to learn outside.”

Brunswick High School is better equipped than the junior high school, and has the added feature of an outdoor classroom in the woods, just off the trail. 

That classroom is environmental science teacher Trent Hutchinson’s favorite spot on campus. A longtime advocate for getting kids outside, he teaches outdoors as much as possible, year-round, he said. They dig soil pits, identify animal and plant species In the winter, they strap on snowshoes, some of them for the first time, and learn how to track animals. 

“Out here they are less stressed, more focused and happier,” he said. 

“Being outside is good for us,” Superintendent Phillip Potenziano agreed. “Learning is not confined to the schoolhouse building … (it) can happen anywhere.”

According to Potenziano, a portion of the district’s coronavirus relief funds can be used to augment outdoor learning, through the purchase of additional tents or awnings. 

The district has a handful already but will need more. 

The only potential snag in the plan is that the supply chain for tents is strapped from the increased demand among restaurants, gyms, businesses and other schools trying to operate outside as much as possible. 

David Norton, owner of New England Tent and Awning in Brunswick, simply doesn’t have any more tents to give — he sent his last few over to Harpswell Coastal Academy last week and the wait time for more is at least four to six weeks. 

Suppliers “just can’t produce the equipment quick enough,” he said. 

Schools are reaching out too late in the game. 

A covered entryway is measured to see if it could accommodate nine students, each spaced six feet apart, for an outdoor classroom. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

“They’ve been waiting for guidance, but all that came later on,” he said. “All the tent companies are strained right now. They just don’t have them.” 

There are still more questions than answers when it comes to reopening, Heyburn admitted, but the district may also explore building some permanent structures, as the virus is likely going to be around for a while and there is value in outdoor learning beyond just safety.  

In order for their plan to be successful, there needs to be as much preparation as possible, she said. Teachers will need professional development to help give them the techniques for teaching outside, not just the physical space. It’s a challenge she thinks the teachers will rise to. 

“Post 9/11 there was this sense of security indoors,” she said, “but COVID has flipped that. Outdoor learning will help us feel safer and mitigate the anxiety” of going back to school. “We’re not in a rut because we already knew everything was going to be different,” she said. 

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