Outdoor classrooms have gained prominence during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as outside activities are prized over time inside, and Blue Ridge School has fashioned an outdoor learning space on campus they plan to utilize for years to come — even after the pandemic is in America's rearview mirror.

"This comes at a really good time, because we want to spend as much time outdoors as we can," said Christine Long, Blue Ridge's principal. "We can take a mask break (when) we're outside and socially distanced."

Dalton Public Schools has mandated masks inside its facilities, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends six feet of distance between people to mitigate spread of the coronavirus.

"It's so good for teachers and students to be somewhere other than their same classroom," said Courtney Taylor, Blue Ridge's media specialist. "It engages them in a different way."

Additional classroom space outside is welcome for Blue Ridge, as fewer than 100 of the school's 660 students are now learning completely virtually, with the rest engaged in face-to-face learning, Long explained in mid-October. "This extra piece is needed."

"Families and students are excited to be back," as, with virtual education, "that social and emotional piece is missing," she said. "We have taken every safety precaution we possibly can to make students and families feel this school is a safe place."

Blue Ridge maintains a Google document where teachers can sign their classes up to use the outdoor classroom, Long said. "I'm just so grateful everyone has gotten on board with this, because you need a team to make a dream reality."

Georgia's hospitable climate allows outdoor learning to be more viable than in cooler locales, Long said. "We have beautiful weather in Georgia, and I'm from upstate New York, so I'm grateful for the cooperative weather here."

Taylor, Sylvia Smith, Blue Ridge's media paraprofessional, and Pam Williams, a gifted resource teacher at the school, properly cleaned the entire space to make it ready for utilization.

"The floor had been overtaken by weeds," Long said. "It was a massive cleanup."

Williams even brought stumps, courtesy of her church, to use as seats, and they add to the natural aura of the classroom.

A tree needed to be taken down by the congregation, and "when I saw those stumps, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, those are our seats,''' Williams said. A second felled tree provided more stumps, so the outdoor classroom now seats 20.

Shades were added to block sunlight and wind thanks to Rock Bridge Community Church, and "that is so helpful," said Angie Edwards, who has taken her fourth-graders to the outdoor classroom several times. "My class was out there a few days ago writing on their computers, and they could do that because they (weren't blinded) by the sun's glare."

A whiteboard has been set up, too, and "we'd like to get some tables out there eventually," Long said. "We'll keep adding to it, (and) I see the future as very bright out there.''

"I have so many visions in my head, perhaps even an amphitheater," said Williams. "When you see the kids get so excited about it, it is so worth it."

Before transitioning into the gifted-teacher role, Williams was a classroom teacher for several grades at Blue Ridge, and she made a habit of taking her students outside, she said. "I wanted to get them out beyond the four walls of the classroom."

Now, during the pandemic, students are "confined" in multiple ways, from wearing masks to social distancing, but the outdoor classroom is an escape and a refuge, she said. "It's become a big learning environment, and I love it."

While Edwards understands and endorses the safety measures during the pandemic, "it is sad to see them having to wear masks all day and be six feet apart, so any way to get outside is ideal," Edwards said. "We can give them some positive memories during a hard year, and you can teach any content area out there."

Learning in an outdoor environment provides "memories that will last them a lifetime," Williams seconded. "This will live way beyond COVID-19."

"It's perfect, and it looks amazing out there," Edwards said. "They're still learning, only with air to breath and hearing the sound of birds."

Students "love it," she added. "They want to go out there even more."

And the outdoor classroom can be utilized beyond simply Blue Ridge's students.

"We could do family engagement things out there," Long said. "Typically, we open our doors and have the community come in, but we can't have visitors in the building because of the pandemic, so we have to be creative."

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