Outdoor Education the Focus at Solomon Schechter Day School in West Hartford

Tents have been set up on the fields of Solomon Schechter Day School, and students are engaged in most of their classwork in an outdoor setting. Courtesy photo

The private school has been holding many classes outside since school resumed in September.

Students at Solomon Schechter have gotten creative with their outdoor seating, bringing comfortable camping chairs for a change of pace from their desk chairs. Courtesy photo

By Ted Glanzer

It took a lot of work on behalf of the staff, but the new year at Solomon Schechter Day School in West Hartford has gotten off largely without a hitch amid the pandemic, with a lot of classes being held outside.

Head of School Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper said the nearly all of the 105 students at the private K through eight school are back with in-person classes, which began Aug. 31, with just a few who have chosen a remote-learning option.

Kasper said the planning began last school year, when the staff and parents formed a pandemic response team of subcommittees, including communications, teaching and learning, facilities, and health and safety.

“There’s a lot of stuff to read, to wrap our heads around, especially in the readiness pieces,” Kasper said. “We were looking at what the CDC had, the American Pediatric Associations, what other schools were doing, the state’s guidelines, Hartford Healthcare and adopting many of those guidelines.”

Tents have been set up on the fields of Solomon Schechter Day School, and students are engaged in most of their classwork in an outdoor setting. Courtesy photo

Parents were also surveyed on whether their kids were wearing masks, whether the kids had been to camp, and how often children had been out and about.

“We got a sense of where children were in terms of being ready to bring them back,” Kasper said.

From there, the school created two safe reopening handbooks: one for families and one for the school’s 35 employees.

So far, the results have been terrific, Kasper said.

“The teachers hit it out of the park,” she said, “Parents have thanked us … It couldn’t have been a better way to start the most bizarre way to start the year.”

The students, Kasper said, were thrilled to see one another and have embraced the outdoor learning.

“It’s been amazing; it feels like school,” Kasper said, noting the kids have, in addition to the hard work of learning math and reading and writing, been taking hand washing breaks, practicing physical distancing. “We’re continuing those habits, but it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re in school.’ They’re laughing and playing outside a lot.”

As a result of the primarily outdoor learning, Kasper said the children don’t have to be masked as frequently.

“One of the nice things I’ve heard is from the middle schoolers, the time between classes, they’re not moving from class to class. They’re staying outside and love the opportunity in those five or six minutes to get up, be in nature, be in the field. It’s been hugely healing and nourishing to be outdoors.”

Tents have been set up on the fields of Solomon Schechter Day School, and students are engaged in most of their classwork in an outdoor setting. Courtesy photo

And while the focus has rightfully been on the students, one issue that hasn’t been discussed as frequently is the well-being of the staff.

Kasper said the school took care in ensuring the adults as well as the children were in a safe environment.

“Schools are not just children,” Kasper said. “They are filled with adults in the school system. I needed it to be a primary place of focus.”

Kasper also acknowledged the situation is evolving, but that she is confident in the administration, staff, and students in their ability to be flexible and creative.

The outdoor learning has already unlocked numerous lessons for teachers, Kasper said.

“It’s helped us do things we maybe wouldn’t have done before,” she said. “We’re pushed to do it and experience it and take on the challenge and make it happen. It doesn’t have to be done in a fancy way.

“The faculty has been so creative.”

Some students have also gotten creative, bringing camping chairs that can go with them as the move from space to space outdoors.

A Solomon Schechter Day School student at work on her laptop, at her outdoor desk. Courtesy photo

“So many things can be done in very economical way,” she said.

The end result, for Kasper, is that she is hopeful.

“We had out trepidations,” she said. “Will we be able to pull it off? Will everybody be OK? I’m optimistic and hopeful. There’s always anxiety when you come into it, but when you do it, you said, ‘Oh, it all paid off. We did a good job in our planning and preparation.’”

And Kasper acknowledged the unusual circumstances all schools are operating under.

“The pressure that schools have been under in last six months, it’s not unprecedented, but it has been extreme,” she said. “It’s astounding the creativity and the care by which teachers have stepped into a challenge that’s weighed heavily on so many people. It’s important to remember the accolades and appreciations in March people were showering on teachers. … It’s not over. They do heroic things every day trying to engage students in-person or remotely under new and different circumstances.”

A young Solomon Schechter student works on a messy project, ideal for an outdoor setting. Courtesy photo

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