'Safer than being inside': Outdoor classrooms taking shape in Toronto amid COVID-19

With COVID-19 cases spiking in Toronto just days before classes resume, parents and staff at one school are setting up outdoor classrooms ahead of next week’s much anticipated return to class at Canada’s largest school board.

Parents, staff at Secord Elementary making sure students stay outside as much as possible

Phil Pothen, who has children attending Secord Elementary School in Toronto, is helping to create outdoor classrooms. (Trevor Dunn/CBC)

With COVID-19 cases spiking in Toronto just days before classes resume, parents and staff at one school are setting up outdoor classrooms ahead of next week's much anticipated return to class at Canada's largest school board.

When students arrive at Secord Elementary School on Tuesday, they'll find yellow lines painted up and down the school- yard grass, marking outdoor classrooms and corridors. White dots indicate where each student will sit. 

"I'm very confident it will work," said Phil Pothen, a land-use planning lawyer with two children at Secord, which is located in the Danforth Avenue and Main Street area in Toronto's east end.

Some students will sit on maple logs that have been donated for seating. Instead of desks, they may be using clipboards.

Pothen and a handful of other Secord parents started the push to create an outdoor learning environment at the school, as research suggested the novel coronavirus doesn't spread as readily outside. Following a directive from the Toronto District School Board to encourage outdoor learning as much as possible, they came up with a plan to maximize the outdoor space they have.

'Great idea'

It didn't take long to win the support of the school's principal. 

"I thought it was a great idea," George Vlahos said in an interview, adding that parents, teachers, and school staff have worked together to set up the outdoor space.

Secord Elementary School parent Phil Pothen paints lines marking outdoor classrooms in the school yard. (Trevor Dunn/CBC)

"It's been a complete collaboration. We're setting everything up, and we're going to make sure it works on Tuesday."

Pothen, who has a background in landscape planning, designed an outdoor floor plan based on physical distancing guidelines. Luckily, Secord has enough yard space to accommodate nearly all of its classrooms.

Pothen says they plan to install blackboards on fences. And there will be hand-washing and sanitizing stations set up in the yard as well.

TDSB wants to see outdoor learning

The TDSB is encouraging outdoor learning as much as possible, but how and if it's carried out will depend on individual schools. It's not mandatory, as many schools simply don't have the space that Secord does.

David Hawker-Budlovsky, a central principal with the TDSB who focuses on outdoor education, says depending on the setting and needs of a school, some teachers will be able to stay on school property for outdoor learning.

Others, he says, will take classes into nearby parks or green spaces.

A plan of the outdoor classroom setup at Secord Elementary School in Toronto. (Phil Pothen)

"Outdoor learning will change teacher to teacher, school to school, but we really hope it's going to be happening," Hawker-Budlovsky said in an interview.

"We know from public health that being outside is safer than being inside." .

Logs for student seating were donated to the school. (Trevor Dunn/CBC)

The Ontario government is spending millions of dollars to reopen schools as safely as possible, but it has been criticized for failing to mandate smaller class sizes to give students and teachers more room for physical distancing.

"The provincial government has not provided the funding to do indoor classes safely," Pothen said. "The workaround that we have is, for as long as it's tolerable, to keep the kids outdoors."

Cold weather

How long will it be tolerable to hold classes outside in Toronto?

At Secord, they're planning to acquire tarps and other material to help classes stay outside as long as possible. They're raising money for rain gear and snow suits for families who can't afford them.

Pothen says schools could pay for some outdoor classroom supplies by using money that would normally go towards parties, trips or other events that won't be happening this year due to the pandemic.


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.