Greenfield Center School opens for outdoor, in-person learning

  • Students wash up before eating snacks at the Greenfield Center School on Wednesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Students started in-person learning outside at the Greenfield Center School under tents and around the grounds on Wednesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Students eat snacks at the Greenfield Center School on Wednesday. Younger students marked their spaces with hula hoops to ensure social distancing. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 8/26/2020 4:00:38 PM

GREENFIELD — Nearly the entire student body arrived to the Greenfield Center School on Wednesday for an in-person start to the school year — and they did so without stepping foot into the building.

Instead, scattered throughout the 2-acre property on Montague City Road, 83 students from preschool to eighth grade met their classmates, all of whom wore masks, beneath large, white tents. Younger students marked their spaces with hula hoops; older students sat in camping chairs.

“I think, through this, we will have started a new tradition (of outdoor learning) … now that we have figured out how to do it,” said Head of School Isabel “Charlie” Spencer.

Although the school has never before conducted classes entirely outdoors, outdoor education has long been part of the mission of the school, Spencer said.

“Children have at least an hour outdoors a day,” she said, adding that sometimes, it can be upwards of three hours.

That’s part of the reason the independent day school opted in the direction of outdoor, in-person learning when it came time to plan fall classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Spencer said the decision followed multiple town halls with parents, teachers and administrators, and meetings of the Reopening Committee.

“The data is showing if you wear a mask and can be outside in the fresh air, the risks are very low and the benefits are infinite,” she said.

The first few weeks of the school year will be about developing a community within the classroom, she explained. Part of that will involve teachers helping students to understand the importance of masks, social distancing and keeping each other safe.

“(Kids) are really more adaptive than we are,” Spencer said.

On a typical day, students will meet with their class for “homeroom,” which will be followed by an activity and snack. The majority of academics or small group work will take place in the mornings. Opportunities for independent work, which includes getting to know software for online learning, will also be woven into the academic time.

The nearby forest area will be used as a classroom for students, where they can read and discuss books, engage with the environment for an ecology lesson, or put on a skit.

“We need fellowship and time together outside,” she said.

In fact, Spencer said she sees this “new normal” as the start of a new tradition for the Greenfield Center School, which plans to relocate to 741 Bernardston Road, a site with about 30 acres of land, in time for the start of the 2021 to 2022 school year.

Spencer sees the potential for focusing on outdoor learning, and reserving indoor spaces only for when it’s absolutely necessary.

“I think we’re learning that about ourselves,” she said.

Josie Dulles, who teaches eighth grade at the Greenfield Center School, said her first day back felt like a camping trip.

“The kids were nervous at first; I was nervous at first,” she said. “But once we saw all the familiar faces, it was really fun.”

Already, Dulles and her students have had conversations about rules they want to establish among themselves, while also integrating rules the state expects them to follow. Together, she said, they established a code word for students if they feel one of the rules isn’t being followed.

Dulles, who has two children of her own at the school, said a challenge has been learning how to use or adapt to the physical space, but also getting used to the things she can’t control, such as disruption posed by wind, for example.

For days with inclement weather, the school is prepared to bring students indoors. According to Spencer, windows and doors allow for cross-ventilation of fresh air, and the building itself is large enough for students and staff members to practice social distancing.

Eighty-three students opted for the outdoor learning plan, though parents and guardians were given the option for their children to receive remote instruction instead. A few students opted for the remote plan.

According to Spencer, students and staff members will also be more prepared for a switch to remote learning, if it is called for, thanks to the in-person instruction now provided on how to use the online software.

But for now, the focus is on developing an outdoor program and getting children used to being together again, albeit in a different way.

“The Center School realizes what an immense privilege it is to be able to try this,” Spencer said. “I’m incredibly humbled by the teachers and parents who made it possible. We stand in solidarity with schools and what they face. We don’t take this for granted.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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