Crook County School Board Chair Scott Cooper is adamant that all students should get to experience Outdoor School, despite COVID-19’s disruption.
“We promised our families early on in the pandemic that we would make this up to them,” Cooper said. “I didn’t know it would take two years.”
Some schools are including seventh graders this year who missed out on Outdoor School last year, but Crook County is the only one giving its eighth graders an Outdoor School-like experience, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service, which administers the program.
Schools across the state are trying to restore and renew spring traditions after two years of pandemic. Outdoor School, with its “wood cookies” name badges, is an Oregon rite of passage that goes back generations at some schools.
Crook County Middle School eighth grader Elise Strong said she heard about Outdoor School from her older brother. She said her school restoring the tradition made her feel cared about.
Crook County is doing its traditional week of Outdoor School for sixth graders in May at Suttle Lake Camp. Eighth graders will get a weekend retreat at the same camp with the theme “Take the reins.” They will do some of the traditional activities, but they will also work on leadership and getting ready for high school.
Eighth grader Leah McNamee was in California in sixth grade and feels lucky she is getting this opportunity now, although she is a little nervous about staying overnight.
“I was shocked the school was doing something like this, but I am excited,” she said.
The first Oregon Outdoor School program started in 1957, according to Friends of Outdoor School. In 2016, Oregon voters approved Measure 99 to assure an outdoors-focused education experience for everyone. The measure allots lottery money for schools to provide Outdoor School for all students in their fifth or sixth grade year.
But in spring 2020, COVID-19’s appearance abruptly canceled many districts’ plans. The following school year, with statewide in-person restrictions, it just wasn’t possible to send children to stay overnight in a camp bunkhouse. Some schools turned to online lessons to keep the spirit going, but they couldn’t possibly capture the power of a group trip in nature.
With the uncertainty of COVID-19 restrictions this school year, many districts opted for day trips or to have instructors come to their schools for outdoor-related science and math lessons. Districts had to complete their application for funds in November, before the mask mandate ended, so they planned cautiously.
Since required masking ended, districts such as Crook County have scrambled to put together their usual fifth or sixth grade camps. Other districts that split their Outdoor School time between fall and spring have opted to have programs similar to the fall in the interest of fairness to the students.
The Extension Service plans to start taking applications May 16 for the next school year, which most hope will be a full restoration. Kristopher Elliott, the Extension Services Outdoor School program director, said regional coordinators will help schools plan programs and fill out applications.
“Our goal is to make sure Outdoor School is absolutely not a burden on school administrators,” he said.
Dan Prince, associate director of Friends of Outdoor School, said this year feels like a step toward regular programming, with more students learning in nature and some schools even holding overnight camps.
He said Outdoor School tends to have very local flavors. Some emphasize outdoor skill building while others are about scientific exploration. Some schools introduce outdoor recreation possibilities while others explore potential careers in the area.
A strong academic focus, though, is pretty universal, he said.
In the Portland area, schools contract with the Multnomah Education Service District to organize Outdoor School. Multnomah ESD has been doing it since 1966.
“A lot of kids don’t have a lot of confidence in nature or being outside,” said Andrea Hussey, the ESD’s outdoor school coordinator. “It is an opportunity to have an experience that is unique and different from a classroom setting.”
Last school year, Multnomah ESD sent home science kits with tools to explore the outdoors and educators talked them through lessons online. Last year and this year, the ESD has tried to include seventh graders who missed out.
This year, Portland-area students are getting long activity days at several camps east of the city but no overnights. On a recent day at Camp Kuratli, sixth and seventh graders dipped creatures out of a pond, wrote on a dock under the trees, explored the soils of a creek, and tossed a ball around on the grass.
Students from both grades said they were having fun, learning a lot and happy to get even a small chunk of the outdoor school experience.
Hussey is hopeful to return next year to overnight stays at the camps but is careful not to get ahead of herself.
“Every session since the pandemic has shifted and changed at the very last minute,” she said. “We’re not allowed to use the word ‘pivot’ anymore with our team.”
The OSU Extension Service allowed schools this year to include seventh graders but it couldn’t include eighth graders because of funding limitations, Elliot said.
Crook County, however, decided to give Outdoor School to its eighth graders this year and its seventh graders will get their turn next year. The district couldn’t catch up both classes at once, and school leaders didn’t want the eighth graders to miss out.
The school district is paying for the camp although it has applied for a $50,000 grant to support the program. Superintendent Sara Johnson said a survey showed teachers and parents wanted it and the school board supported the idea, especially Cooper.
“Scott has high expectations for this school district, and he won’t take no for an answer,” she said. “He keeps going until he finds a way.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
As part of an abbreviated Outdoor School, Portland-area sixth and seventh graders got to spend a couple of days exploring the natural world this week at Camp Kuratli, about 20 miles from downtown Portland. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)