The COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon not only resulted in the premature end of the 2019-20 school year, but also led to mass cancellations of in-person outdoor school programs. The cancellations came at a time when enrollment in Oregon State University Extension Service Outdoor School was increasing statewide. Nearly 38,000 students took part in Outdoor School in 2018-19, a 6% increase over the 2017-18 school year.
It was anticipated that figure would rise to 43,300 students in 2019-20 – before the spread of COVID-19 led Gov. Kate Brown to issue a statewide order to close schools in March.
In its strategic response to the pandemic, the Extension Outdoor School program created resources to engage children in learning about nature while adhering to Oregon’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order.
Outdoor School added a webpage – “Educational Resources for Stay Home, Save Lives” – to its website where parents, guardians and teachers can find links to resources to support outdoor learning experiences while schools are out of session.
The page, which can be translated to Spanish, was updated Fridays with weekly resource sets with nature observations, journal prompts, and online activities. Outdoor School linked to the resource sets on its Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Nearly 400 new users visited the webpage in its first two weeks. That created a ripple effect: Visits to the OSU Extension Outdoor School website more than doubled in a month.
It’s not just families who accessed the resources. In their first month, 17% of unique visits to the weekly resource sets come from Google Classroom, suggesting that teachers were directing parents and students to the resource sets as part of their distance learning, said Kristi Backe, Extension Outdoor School’s curriculum and professional development coordinator.
“We picked topics that are accessible to many students. Things that you can see out a window,” said Backe, who worked with the Extension Outdoor School’s team to develop in one week the educational resources webpage.
“We wanted to focus on curating these resources into manageable pieces so they’re not overwhelming families,” she said. “It only takes a couple of minutes to read through each topic.”
In 2016, Oregon voters passed Measure 99, mandating that all Oregon fifth- or sixth-grade students should have the opportunity to attend a week-long outdoor school program or comparable outdoor education program.
Measure 99 created an Outdoor School Education Fund and charged Oregon State University Extension Service with supporting, administering and funding an outdoor school program as set forth in Senate Bill 439, which approved $24 million for the program’s first two years. Last year, the Oregon Legislature approved $46 million for the next biennium for Extension Outdoor School.