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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest chess move in the tense battle over in-person education in New York City was to unveil a surprise plan this week for outdoor learning in public, private and charter schools.

“Parents have asked about it. Educators have asked about it,” de Blasio said during a news conference Monday. “Outdoors is one of the things that works,” de Blasio added, noting that Italy, Norway and Denmark have implemented outdoor learning effectively. “The disease doesn’t spread the same way outdoors. We’ve seen that over and over.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has previously said that schools should offer as many outdoor options as possible for classes, recess and lunch. In addition to lowering the risk of coronavirus transmission, studies show that outdoor learning can be beneficial for students with cognitive and behavioral disabilities.

There’s a historical precedent for outdoor learning in New York in response to contagious disease outbreaks. During a major tuberculosis outbreak in the early 1900s New York City school children attended open-air classes on rooftops, on an abandoned ferry, and in classrooms with the windows flung open in the dead of winter, the New York Times reported.

A number of New York schools have existing outdoor learning programs, some of them inspired by European models. Brooklyn New School, with a diverse student body, offers shore school, forest school, farming and community themed programs for the early grades, for example. The New York Harbor School offers students a maritime-themed education program on Governor’s Island. PS/MS 7’s garden space was utilized by a summer Recreation Enrichment Center program at the school to provide outdoor activities for children of frontline workers. Grow NYC has registered over 800 school gardens.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote a New York Daily News op-ed stating that there are 29.5 million square foot of outdoor schoolyards in New York that could be repurposed as a class and programming space.

There’s a broad range in how people think about outdoor learning, according to Mirem Villamil, the head garden manager at Edible Schoolyard NYC, a nonprofit that partners with schools to offer gardening and cooking education to students.

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