If School Buildings Cannot Open, How About Using Tents?

By Marc Joffe
March 23, 2021

With warmer, drier weather on the way, California public school districts worried about safely reopening classrooms could offer in-person classes outdoors, using tents or other temporary structures to ward off some of the elements. If restaurants and gyms have been able to serve customers outdoors under tents, why can’t public schools serve at least some of their students in the same manner?

The data shows that virtual instruction has many kids falling behind and even the CDC says it is time to get kids back to the classroom. An outdoor schooling option could address some parents and teachers concerns about returning to poorly ventilated school buildings, while giving kids more opportunities to achieve better learning outcomes and to socialize with their peers.

There is nothing new about the idea of outdoor education. Last October, the New York Times profiled four schools across the country that were successfully offering outdoor classroom options.  Similarly, the Green Schoolyards America launched a National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative in conjunction with UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science among others to provide an extensive library of materials to help schools and districts set up outdoor educational programs.

Last fall, Golestan, a private school in El Cerrito, California reopened by implementing ideas from the Outdoor Learning Initiative.

Ironically, Golestan’s location is within the West Contra Costa Unified School District, where public schools are on an especially slow track to reopening. So, children whose parents can afford Golestan’s $23,927 annual tuition (or qualify for sufficient financial aid) get the benefits of in-person education while less affluent kids in El Cerrito, Richmond and neighboring communities continue to struggle with distance learning. This is hardly educational equity.

Unfortunately, getting traditional public schools to adopt outdoor learning or other innovative approaches is an uphill battle. California school districts too often lack flexibility and eagerness to please families because of bureaucracy and the influence of special interests.

We like to think that school boards are predominantly accountable to parents – and, by extension, their kids – but that is too often not the case. Like many down-ballot races, school board elections receive little attention. Voters often skip over the school board section of the ballot or rely on voter guides provided by special interest groups. As a result, board composition can hinge on the votes of a few hundred motivated voters, who may be associated with school employee unions.

So, at least in the case of school districts, democracy does not provide the type of accountability one might expect. Back east, they have partially solved this problem by giving mayors control of local schools. Because mayoral elections are higher visibility contests, mayors may be more attuned to the concerns of large voter block, such as public school parents.

Another solution to give students and families more control is to extend school choice. If parents can choose to register their children in neighboring school districts, in charter schools, or even private schools using education savings accounts, they can vote with their children’s educational funding, making school districts more accountable. If school districts faced the risk of shrinkage and reduced headcounts due to lower enrollment, their focus on children’s need for in person instruction might improve and they would be forced to consider innovative learning techniques, like tent cover classrooms.

Right now, California school districts are well insulated from competition and accountability. The state legislature protected school districts from reductions in local control funding formula allocations due to enrollment declines in 2020-2021. And, although some of the state’s emergency school funding package is tied to partial classroom reopening plans, there are also large amounts of unconditional funding. Finally, multiple tranches of federal funding are also not conditioned on reopening (a last-minute Senate amendment to the American Rescue Plan requires school districts to produce a reopening plan but does not prescribe specific reopening dates).

Too many California school districts have become lumbering bureaucracies more responsive to special interests than the children and parents they are supposed to serve. Democratic forms of accountability have proven inadequate to get many children access to in person education. It is time to consider reforms that empower parents and encourage school officials to think outside the box, which may include a safe return to in-person schooling outdoors under the protection of tents.

 *   *   *

Marc Joffe is a Senior Policy Analyst at Reason Foundation. Contact him at marc.joffe@reason.org

MORE GREAT ARTICLES