Katie West teaches an outdoor art class to third-graders in the woods at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

After a big push to incorporate outdoor learning into schools this fall, Portland Public Schools is bracing for winter. The district has purchased 500 hats and 1,000 pairs of gloves and distributed them to students. Six-hundred pairs of snow pants are expected to arrive after Thanksgiving. An order of fleece will be cut up into blankets and neck warmers.

The stockpiling and distribution of winter gear is all part of an effort to extend outdoor education, which has been key to the district’s strategy for reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. And while it’s still unclear exactly how many teachers and students will continue to learn outside through Maine’s coldest months, Portland Public Schools Outdoor Learning Coordinator Brooke Teller said the district wants to be prepared.

“We’re hopeful this will help students feel comfortable outside and teachers can extend outside time for their students, but it will be cold,” she said.

With winter approaching and coronavirus numbers surging in Maine, the district is among those that are optimistic they’ll be able to continue utilizing outdoor spaces this winter. But that will also require ensuring students are properly outfitted and incorporating lots of movement into their routine. Community partnerships and collaboration among teachers will also be key to schools’ outdoor learning plans this winter.

Katie West talks about the texture of tree bark while teaching an outdoor art class in the woods at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Katie West, an art teacher at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland, is among teachers who plan to continue teaching outside as long as it’s safe. “I already have teachers tell me, ‘You’re really hardy,'” said West, who has a background in outdoor education and previously worked as a sailing wilderness guide and outdoor education teacher at the Chewonki Foundation.

“But at the same time I think teachers are grateful. They all know it’s good for the kids and we’re all kind of nervous and we don’t know if we’ll go remote. I’m hoping this isn’t a moot conversation. I’ve done my homework and the risk outdoors is so minimal with masks. As long as you have masks and sanitizing, you’ve lowered your risk significantly.”

Third-grader Gianna Meas shows a tree her painting of it at the end of an outdoor art class in the woods at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Two months into the school year, there’s only been one day so far where West hasn’t brought students outside. Because of that, her students’ bodies are acclimating and they’ve started coming prepared for the elements even on sunny days. On a recent day with temperatures in the low 40s, a group of third-graders worked contentedly sitting on waterproof cushions and tree stumps under a tarp in the woods. Only one student in the group of six complained once about the cold.

West also applied for and received a $1,000 grant that will be used to start a gear exchange for Lyseth students who don’t have the appropriate clothing, like winter boots or hats, or forget theirs at home. “There’s no winter education without the appropriate gear,” she said.

The South Portland School Department, which set up over 90 outdoor learning spaces across eight schools this fall, is also working on getting donations of outdoors gear to ensure equitable access for all students. “It’s really important to us if a classroom wants to go outside that every student in that classroom has access to snow pants or jackets or mittens, so that everyone can go out without barriers,” said Gretchen McCloy, director of community partnerships for the district.

How much teachers in South Portland use outdoor learning this winter will vary by school and individual teacher. But McCloy said it is something they’re thinking about. “The question around the winter is a big question for all of us,” she said. “I think each building is evaluating with their leadership team what their hopes and dreams are for the winter months. But we’ve definitely seen more people working and learning and teaching outside than ever before.”

Third-grader Kali Levecque works on a painting of a tree during an outdoor art class in the woods at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Schools around Maine are partnering with outside and community groups to carry outdoor learning into the winter. In Freeport-based Regional School Unit 5, the district is using federal coronavirus relief dollars to provide an optional remote-learning day program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students with the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment.

About 200 students have enrolled in the program, where they’ll learn about food production, farm science and outdoor living with access to tents set up for warming huts as the weather gets colder. The partnership is scheduled to end Dec. 18, but Mast Landing School Principal Emily Grimm said outdoor learning will continue, at least for physical education.

“I think the big benefit to come out of this is kids are developing more comfort and resilience in the outdoors,” Grimm said. “It’s a great benefit that I hope extends past this COVID year we’re experiencing.”

Third-grader Gianna Meas works on her painting of a tree during an outdoor art class in the woods at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Juniper Hill School, an independent school in Alna with a focus on outdoor, nature-based education, is planning on having all students outdoors 100 percent of the day with “warming breaks” this winter. In a typical school year, pre-K and kindergarten students spend 80 to 100 percent of their time outdoors, even in the winter, while first- through fifth-graders are outside as much as 50 percent of the time in the winter.

Movement is always a big part of winter education at Juniper Hill, whether it’s visits to the Hidden Valley Nature Center, cross-country skiing or bringing in primitive skills experts to teach the children survival lessons, said Anne Stires, founder and director of development, outreach and advocacy.

The students also eat different food in the winter. “A little maple syrup or a little coconut oil goes a long way for children in the winter,” said Stires, who is also an affiliate faculty member in the nature-based early childhood program at Antioch University and has been working with schools around the state this fall on implementing outdoor learning programs.

She said many teachers are excited about the prospect of teaching outdoors in winter. One key for those who may feel apprehensive is to take it slow. Even a 30-minute nature walk can have big benefits for teachers and students both academically and emotionally.

Third-graders Aurelia Martin, left, and Gianna Meas work on their paintings of trees during an outdoor art class in the woods at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“This is a time that will teach us what we’re made of,” Stires said. “I think we are finding out the depths of our resilience and yes, while anxiety and depression are quite high right now, we do know what the antidotes to those are, and one of those is nature.”

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