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Lake County School District adopts hybrid outdoor learning program for elementary students

Wednesday, October 7, 2020 -- GOCO

                                                                                                                                       Photo by Paul Laningham, courtesy of 100 Elk Outdoor Center.  

While most kids across the country started this school year staring at computer screens, elementary students in Lake County School District (LCSD) are doing things differently. In 2019, LCSD’s board of education approved an extended-year, four-day calendar, which the district aimed to fully adopt this year. Despite COVID challenges, LCSD proceeded with its plans and created a unique hybrid learning model, blending in-person instruction two days per week with outdoor experiences at nearby 100 Elk Outdoor Center on the other two days. 

LCSD works in partnership with Get Outdoors Leadville! (GOL!), a GOCO-funded Generation Wild coalition, to provide outdoor programming to students, both as a part of this new initiative and during normal school days. To date, GOCO has invested $3 million in GOL! to support its work in breaking down barriers to the outdoors for Lake County families. With its GOCO funding, GOL! provides summer camps, after-school programs, youth employment opportunities, family adventure days, and gear borrowing through a community gear library.

With so much access to nature, Lake County and neighboring Chaffee County (where 100 Elk Outdoor Center is located) are ideal locations for outdoor learning. On outdoor days, students participate in a wide range of activities, including a high ropes course, rock climbing, canoeing, and hiking. They’re also given time to do at-home work assigned by teachers on classroom days. 

Goals of this program include providing childcare for families on days their students are not in the classroom, supporting students with homework and remote learning, and caring for students’ emotional and social well being during this time of uncertainty. 

                                                                                                                                      Photo by Paul Laningham, courtesy of 100 Elk Outdoor Center.   

“At a time when so much focus is on managing students’ physical safety in the school environment, we have leveraged outdoor spaces and experiences to prioritize social-emotional safety,” explained Becca Katz, community learning director for LCSD and GOL!. “Through this program, students are able to just be kids. They’re hugging trees, zip-lining through the forest, climbing rocks, working together on team building initiatives, and just running around outside with giant grins. Even though their grins are covered by masks, we’ve achieved unconventional learning and a degree of unfettered fun at a time when it’s so important and hard to come by.” 

Parents of LCSD students who had worried about the negative impacts of remote learning are excited about the program, which is funded by LCSD and Lake County government’s CARES Relief Fund. Staff and project partners worked hard to design it quickly and thoughtfully, training staff at 100 Elk, coordinating food and transportation, and separating students into cohorts. 

The past six months have forced Colorado communities to think creatively. This program demonstrates ingenuity and flexibility in education and serves as an example for how to create healthy, supportive learning environments for students. Evidence suggests that virus transmission rates are lower in outdoor environments and that nature-based experiences support overall learning and well-being in children. So while the pandemic will eventually pass, the benefits of outdoor time are here to stay. Here’s to new models for learning and supporting families a silver lining for Lake County and us all.

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