MOUNT DESERT — Students and staff of the Mount Desert Island Community School have been paying more attention to the weather forecast these days.
“We have shifted all of our classes to be outside this fall,” said the school’s founder and director, Jasmine Smith, in a conversation earlier this week. “Though cold has not been an issue yet, we have prepared our students and families for having ‘wind days’ – no school due to high winds – and we have had one already when predicted gusts were up to 60 mph.”
Like the public school system, the Community School is adjusting its practices in response to the pandemic. Throughout the summer, they worked to create outdoor learning spaces that include three bell tents that are similar to yurts, six tarp structures, four tree stump classrooms and two timber framed structures around picnic tables on the property.
“We’re making use of some outdoor structures we already had, like our outdoor porch,” Smith added. “We will still need to spend more time outside than in years past… Our teachers are all experienced outdoor educators and we are holding school almost entirely outdoors. We do a lot of risk assessment together each day!”
Student enrollment at the only alternative to the public school system on Mount Desert Island, outside of homeschooling, is at capacity this school year. There are also a couple of dozen students on a waiting list for the school, which is in its seventh year of operation.
“We have had a small waiting list (in previous years), but not one this large,” said Smith, adding that this is the first year for a grade eight at the school of 30 students. “We’ve grown very slowly intentionally… The pandemic has really made families reflect on their priorities, and one of those is education. People are looking for smaller, lower risk and outdoors.”
As the public school system has seen, some of the increase in students is from folks deciding to stay in what is usually a seasonal home or families moving here from more populated areas of the country.
“These people are used to having more school choice,” Smith said, regarding families who are relocating from the West Coast and New York City.
A portion of the school’s growth is also families from MDI and the area’s outer islands who favor the Community School’s model of learning.
“We’re also engaging the pandemic as a learning opportunity,” said Smith. “We’re engaging the unknowns of the world right now and engaging science and research… Really, the woods and waters of MDI are used as our extended classroom.”
Each of the elementary schools within the public school system has also increased outside time for students. As Julie Meltzer, the district’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction, explains, there is a difference between doing things outside that involve learning and having outside classes.
While some outdoor classroom spaces have been created, at Tremont Consolidated School for example, students are being asked to dress in layers when attending the schools in preparation for more outdoor activities.
“Thank goodness we’ve had such great weather,” said Conners Emerson School Principal Barb Neilly. “Each grade level has developed a schedule that has increased outside breaks.”
In incorporating proper physical distancing and in learning through games, there have been several outdoor activities introduced at the elementary school.
“It’s almost going back to old school, going back to different games,” Neilly added. “Our school is so used to being outside because we have to transition (between buildings) for library, music and phys ed.”
Without specific outdoor structures for students, all have been given a 3- or 5-gallon bucket for carrying materials that can be turned over and used as a seat when classes go outside for instruction. At this time, there are no outside structures for classes because school officials haven’t been able to find a product that meets the fire standards for the town, according to Neilly.
More outside time is providing more possibilities at the Bar Harbor school, including bringing an amphitheater built on the grounds about 30 years ago back into action.
“We’re trying to get that up and running again,” said Neilly, noting that all of the island’s schools are doing more in the outdoors. “Everybody’s really taking advantage of being outside. It is so different than anything we’ve ever done. In many ways, we are so fortunate to be where we are.”