‘Fighting for survival’: Outdoor education programs at risk because of COVID-19

Lawrence Lab
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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 11 million students are at risk of losing access to outdoor education if shelter-in-place policies remain until Dec. 31, according to a recent study published by the Lawrence Hall of Science.

The study, conducted in April, drew almost 1,000 survey responses from 49 states. The researchers started an online discussion for environmental education program leaders where they could share the impact of COVID-19 on their programs, which inspired the larger study.

“We started hearing these devastating stories of programs closing, entire staffs being laid off or furloughed,” said Craig Strang, associate director for learning and teaching at the Lawrence Hall of Science. “A lot of organizational leaders were telling us that they were concerned that, if the shutdown lasted for more than a few weeks, they might not ever be able to reopen.”

The study found that roughly 58% of the students who are most impacted come from low-income communities or communities of color. Furthermore, it found that if social distancing continues until the end of 2020, these programs could be facing a loss of more than 30,000 staff and $600 million in revenue.

Program leaders are not only worried about the financial losses — 63% of program leaders feel “uncertain” about their ability to reopen, according to the study but also about the academic, social and emotional effects on students. The unique type of student engagement that is provided by outdoor experiences is in danger of becoming absent from students’ educations, according to a policy brief.

The study found outdoor education has positive impacts on youth cognitive function and emotional stability.

Jedda Foreman, director of environmental literacy programs at the Lawrence Hall of Science and co-author of the study, said sustaining organizations that promote outdoor education is important because she thinks they are “overlooked” despite the profound learning experiences they provide.

Strang and his colleagues recommended that environmental education organizations partner with California school districts and attempt to integrate outdoor learning into the school week.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation using an existing grant that was used to study outdoor science and environmental education programs. The original research was unable to be conducted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the research group reallocated the funding in order to execute this project.

Foreman said she and her team are interested in conducting a follow-up survey in the coming months.

Contact Naomi Birenbaum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @NaomiBirenbaum1.