Faced with the threat of a potentially fatal airborne disease and even without the development of a vaccine, how to ensure the safe return of children to class? This current dilemma was also faced a century ago, when tuberculosis was a devastating disease.
At the end of the 19th century, this bacterial disease killed one in seven citizens in Europe and the United States, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The vaccine was made in 1921, but it would be many years before it was widely adopted around the world.
To protect children in schools, one solution was to use the open spaces as classrooms: with whiteboards and portable desks, students and teachers occupied gardens and used nature observation to learn about science, art or geography, for example.
The so-called “open-air schools” arose in Germany and Belgium in 1904, and the movement advanced in the following decades, to the point of being the subject, in 1922, of the First International Congress of Open-Air Schools, in Paris. It also inspired action in the US, when, in 1907, two Rhode Island doctors suggested opening schools in open areas, according to The New York Times.
With the success of the initiative (since no child there became ill with tuberculosis), in the following two years 65 more schools of this type were created in the country, in empty buildings, roofs of buildings and even abandoned ferries.
The idea was also incorporated in Brazil, although there are few records on the subject, but the researcher André Dalben found stories about schools of this type from 1916 in Campos de Goytacazes, Angra dos Reis and Manaus and, later, the so-called Débeis School, in Quinta da Boa Vista, in Rio de Janeiro, between 1927 and 1930.
“Tuberculosis was a major concern, along with other childhood diseases, such as anemia and malnutrition. In general, schools cared for children from poor families, which shows a trend towards hygiene: as their organisms were thought to they were sicker, “Dalben explains.
The idea, he says, was to get these children out of unsanitary places, such as overcrowded homes, and put them in contact with nature, with the intention of strengthening their immune systems.
One of the longest-lasting programs was that of the Outdoor Application School (EAAL), which operated in Parque da Agua Branca, west of Sao Paulo, between 1939 and the 1950s, when the school moved to a nearby building, in Barrio Lapa. EAAL was studied by Dalben, now a professor at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, in his post-doctorate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.
The Sao Paulo school did not fit the profile of the others: it taught students from influential middle-class families in that city who lived near Parque da Agua Branca, in areas that now host neighborhoods such as Pompeia and Perdizes.
Dalben explains that the school, which had a student body of 350, was considered a model by the São Paulo state administration and had a different curriculum and even a waiting list for entrance.
“But I don’t know what day-to-day life was like at school. I was approached by some former students, today in their 80s, who said they had very strict teachers. So perhaps in practice it would not be very different from the others. Contact with nature and protagonism of the students.”
In addition to tuberculosis control, the open-air school model flourished in the period between the world wars, a time of the rise of new ideals of society and education, states Diana Vidal, professor of History of Education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Sao Paulo (USP).
“There was a debate among educators against the school experience of the past, with a view to creating one that was friendlier, promoting the defense of democracy, to create a more peaceful and supportive generation.”
Although the ideal did not materialize – shortly after the Second World War would arrive – Vidal explains that this was the seed for the defense of a teaching closer to nature, with youthful prominence, that would engage children in practical projects, combining physical activities, intellectual and emotional development and had the teacher as a mediator, rather than just a content provider.
They are ideas that remain current (and not always put into practice) in current education. André Dalben says that the open-air schools of the early 20th century were already called a “medical-pedagogical comet”, which ended up almost disappearing in the 1950s and 1960s.
First, because infectious diseases have stopped (at least until this year) from being so devastating, says Dalben.
Later, Diana Vidal explains, because the school model similar to the style of the factory regime prevailed, which implements fixed arrival and departure times and tries to accommodate as many students as possible within a physical space, in order to optimize resources and expenses
Parks, squares and clubs
Diana Vidal took notice of the open-air schools of the past when she saw images of the back to school in Manaus, in early August, with young children wearing face masks and sitting in a classroom with acrylic dividers between them.
“Perhaps we are so attached to business solutions, designed for working adults, that we cannot recognize the inadequacy of these measures for students in the early years of basic education,” Vidal wrote in an article in the USP newspaper.
On the other hand, she states, “by putting children in greater contact with nature, a discussion is created about teaching practices. (…) They begin to explore other spaces in the educational experience – with new content and new relationships”.
Furthermore, studies so far indicate that the proliferation of the novel Coronavirus is much lower in open and naturally ventilated spaces. “The virus ends up infinitely diluted outdoors,” epidemiology professor Erin Bromage at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, USA. “So when a sick person exhales, the germs dissipate very quickly. “.
But, in practice, how to move the school to outer space, mainly in big cities, with few free areas available?
In August, the Brazilian organization for the rights of the child ALANA launched, based on the guidelines of the Brazilian Pediatric Society and the Union of Municipal Education Directors (Undime), a document with suggestions for the use of public spaces to resume the face-to-face classes.
The text maintains that, while the time to return to schools must be defined by the health authorities, the way in which this will occur must also be discussed by the authorities that manage the city’s public facilities, such as parks and squares.
Among the suggestions is the creation of temporary rooms in parks, squares and clubs, aimed mainly at the little ones, in order to free up more internal space in the school to schedule the return to school of older children and adolescents. He also suggests using picnic tables or tree trimming to create wooden benches, associated with lightweight materials (such as flip charts and clipboards) brought from school.
A major obstacle, the document says, is that only 40% of the country’s preschools have play areas and only 25% have green areas. And even before the pandemic, many children’s contact with nature was already rare or insufficient, a contact that could help promote a richer, more creative and healthier childhood.
For André Dalben, the outdoor schools of the past are an inspiration to rethink the architecture of today’s schools. “When I began to investigate this, I was focused on children’s environmental education, (as a solution) so that this education did not have to be a single content, but went through all disciplines. And now there is also the Pandemic,” he says.
“We can think of schools together with cities as a whole, with more use of parks and public spaces. We are not going to follow the same lines as the outdoor school of the past, but we are going to reinterpret them.”
From California to Kashmir
At the same time, from rich and developed regions to poorer and more conflictive areas, the use of open spaces has been discussed in different parts of the world. In the US, the Green Schoolyards organization created the National Outdoor Learning Initiative, compiling strategies that are being adopted by American schools.
One of them, in California, installed portable blackboards, drinking water filters and rectangular hay blocks in the patio, which serve as both a bench to sit on and as giant blocks to play or share spaces.
Denmark also created a portal with proposals for “education outside the classroom” amid the Pandemic. One of the strategies is to keep children in small groups throughout the day, avoiding contact with each other and making greater use of the external spaces of each school.
In the troubled and vulnerable Kashmir region, located on the border between India, China and Pakistan, another initiative has drawn attention. Children study outdoors, even in unpredictable weather conditions, as the “new classroom” is at the foot of the Himalayas. Students and teachers wear protective masks and can set up tents for cover, but take classes even in the rain.
USP’s Diana Vidal says she still sees little discussion on the subject in Brazil, but she sees past experiences as a test tube, to foster public debate. As the school models were consolidated, they also became naturalized and we forgot about other possibilities “, says Vidal. Including the possibility of avoiding, when possible, the physical classroom.
“The exterior does not have to be only for the famous school excursions. We will be forced to use the exterior, which is much better than the closed environment. It is an invitation to think about how to make better use of the spaces we have.”