Outdoor Learning Initiative

In response to COVID-19, the Outdoor Learning Initiative aims to increase the amount of outdoor space available to schools and designated programs. School leaders and program directors can request city permits to use public park space and local streets to hold classes and program activities outdoors. The Initiative also supports schools expanding the use of their existing school yards. 

This initiative is a collaborative effort led by the DOE, the Mayor’s Office, and partnering city agencies listed below. It is open to all public, charter, and private schools, as well as Learning Bridges.

Schools in the city’s 27 neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and schools with no outdoor space on site, will receive priority. This Outdoor Learning Initiative operates from September 2020 to June 2021. 

For more information, read the August 24, 2020 press release.

Partnering City Agencies

  • Mayor’s Office
  • City Hall
  • The Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • The Department of Parks & Recreation (Parks & Rec)
  • The Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO)
  • The Department of Sanitation
  • The New York City Fire Department (FDNY)
  • The New York City Police Department (NYPD)
  • Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH)

How to Enroll

Parents can work with school and program leaders to submit applications for participation. Schools and Learning Bridges programs should see the Outdoor Learning Initiative page on the InfoHub for information. The application surveys will remain open for rolling submissions throughout the school year. Programming and funding resources can also be found on InfoHub. All permits will be approved and issued by the interagency work group.

Outdoor Learning Resources

Toolkit & Virtual Workshop

We've partnered with GrowNYC & the National Wildlife Federation (NYC) to offer academic resources for schools and remote activities for families and students to engage in outdoor learning curriculum. An Outdoor Learning Toolkit and rotating virtual workshops is available. 

GrowNYC Mini Grant"

Schools can apply for $500 - $2000 to start or expand a school garden or an outdoor learning space. The deadline to apply is February 15.

School Wellness Councils

School Wellness Councils are groups of parents, students, school staff, and community members who work together and with the school administration to promote a healthy school community. Much of this work centers around the promotion of physical activity and maximizing outdoor space for curriculum and activity in and around schools. Schools with active Wellness Councils are also eligible for grant funding for initiatives such as Outdoor Learning.

Cold Weather Guidance

Per DOHMH guidelines: In cold weather, students should still be allowed to play outside whenever possible. Unless it’s snowing, there is ice on the playground, or the wind-chill factor is below zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius), schools should not prohibit outdoor play based on the outdoor temperature alone. On very cold days, families and school staff should make sure that students cover up skin, wear warm clothing, and use several layers to stay warm.

Outdoor Learning Initiative Policies

Outdoor Learning Policy

Outdoor learning supports student learning and a safe return to school in multiple ways. Social distancing constraints allow for far fewer people in DOE buildings, creating demand for additional space. Research indicates that COVID-19 transmission is less likely outside; prior research points to the health, developmental, and educational benefits of time spent outside. State guidelines for music require at least 12 feet of space between people; for PE, students must be 6 feet away from each other for low-to-moderate activity and 12 feet for vigorous activity.

 “Responsible Parties should ensure that a distance of 12 feet in all directions is maintained between individuals while participating in activities that require projecting the voice (e.g., singing), playing a wind instrument, or aerobic activity resulting in heavy breathing (e.g., participating in gym classes).”

  • Per above, singing and playing wind instruments require students to be 12 feet apart in all directions. Other music classes, e.g., string orchestra, keyboard, guitar, do not require this.
  • In addition, other arts forms besides music may require 12 feet distancing, if students will be engaging in heavy breathing or projecting the voice. Depending on specific activities, this may include dance or theater.[1]

This can further reduce indoor capacity beyond the standard social distancing space requirements. In-person instruction that adheres to disease prevention practices (physical distancing, masks) is necessary for each student’s resiliency and recovery. This includes PE, music, dance, art, theatre and daily early childhood gross motor activities that can help rebuild socialization skills, community cohesion, trust, re-invigorate physical activity, and at best, some of the joys of childhood the pandemic has curbed. In addition, group size in outdoor learning can be larger and still be consistent with social distancing requirements.

Dedicated outdoor space around or adjacent schools would help:

  • Extend safe instructional spaces and provide as much space to students as possible, especially to preserve recent investments in PE as important to a free and fair public education;
  • Allow for other courses that require a higher level of movement/breathing (e.g., music, dance), programs (gardening) and additional space for staff breaks/preps;
  • Ensure that early childhood needs (i.e. daily gross motor activities, typically outside) are met and aligned with developmentally appropriate support for the youngest learners;
  • Build trust with parents/caregivers that every option to keep children and staff safe is being activated, and serve as a public tool to positively impact student health; and

Allow for equitable opportunities for safe, structured, and supervised community programming and physical activity afterschool.

Policy Overview and General Guidance

The Outdoor Learning Initiative increases schools’ outdoor space to do the following:

  • Conduct PE and arts classes, and early childhood gross motor activities, in alignment with academic expectations and policies (see PE policy here);
  • Accomplish entry and exit processes safely and efficiently
  • Allow for children to have “mask breaks” as indicated by State Department of Health guidance
  • Conduct additional academic classes where space permits and the school has an interest in doing so.
  • In order reduce the burden on principals and school staff with localized and competing permitting processes, the DOE will:
  • Create an application process for schools to request support in securing additional outdoor space beyond existing school grounds or if a school's existing outdoor school grounds are not deemed structurally or environmentally safe.
  • Aggregate such requests and coordinate with partnering city agencies to prioritize requests according to need and feasibility.
  • Encourage schools to hold PE, dance, theatre, chorus and band classes (instruments that require the breath like woodwind and brass instruments) outside wherever possible. Other related activities are strongly encouraged as well.
  • Encourage academic classes to be held outside wherever and whenever possible, at the principal’s discretion.

Request that any PTA fundraising to support outside learning to support such efforts across, not just within, communities.

To provide enough space for these courses and activities, along with other instruction that can ease indoor space burdens, schools should first turn to their regular onsite options (i.e., school grounds such as yards and fields). In cases where school grounds are non-existent or insufficient, school communities may choose to pursue additional outdoor learning space. 

The Divisions of School Climate and Wellness (DSCW), School Planning and Development (DSPD), and the Office of the Chief Operating Officer (COO) will issue an Outdoor Learning Survey to capture school needs and distribute requests to the appropriate partnering city agencies (i.e. street request go to the DOT). The Outdoor Learning survey applications will be reviewed and prioritized based on:

  • Need for space in accordance with the priorities enumerated above.
  • Community impact, with priority to the 27 communities most impacted by COVID.
  • Feasibility, capacity, and implementation plan per DOT requirements (set up and breakdown of barriers, stewardship of space) using existing structures and resources.

The DOE will work with city agencies including DOT, Parks Department, NYPD, DOHMH and others as appropriate to support the permitting process, including prioritization.

Importance of Art

The arts (dance, moving image, music, theater, and visual arts) are core contents and must be taught as part of blended and remote learning in reopening NYC DOE schools for fall 2020. Schools must meet New York State Instructional Requirements in the Arts for instructional hours (with recently issued flexibility guidelines by NYSED) and certified teacher requirements. New York State Department of Health notes that arts “must be prioritized…it is imperative that schools include in-person instruction in those areas to the extent possible” (page 9).

In addition to core content, arts education provides a unique opportunity for youth to explore their creative voices, collaborate, focus, problem-solve and develop other interpersonal and life skills. Perhaps most importantly at this time, the arts play a crucial role in nurturing students’ social-emotional well-being and identity in belonging to an ensemble or community of peers.

Using outdoor spaces for arts learning enables students to perform together in ensemble where they can see, hear, and respond to each other and move together. The confines of space, as well as digital delay, present limitations for indoor and remote learning, which can largely be overcome in outdoor settings.

Importance of Physical Education

Physical Education instruction is critical to helping students re-establish healthy habits so that they can rebound physically and mentally from the trauma, isolation, and increased sedentary time brought about by the pandemic. PE provides students with the concepts and skills that they need for life-long mental and physical health; in the current environment, these skills are more important than ever, and they are essential to supporting our students academically and social-emotionally as they return to school. While PE lessons can be appropriately modified for a range of environments including indoor space to meet COVID-prevention health and safety guidelines, there are additional challenges to equitably providing quality PE for all students given the constraints that schools face. Using outdoor space for PE will make it easier for schools to ensure that students benefit from PE instruction; it will enable teachers to provide students with PE that includes more moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activities and a wider range of instructional experiences; and it reaffirms the DOE’s commitment to prioritizing student health and well-being. The City made significant investments over the past several years to re-establish PE as a core part of every child’s academic experience, and to move into greater compliance with State Law. Without providing clear policies and processes to maximize the use of outdoor space, we risk losing the progress we have made to date and we risk deepening both educational and health disparities for our students.

Importance of Early Childhood Gross Motor Activities Outdoors

Children in 3-K and pre-K classrooms are expected to spend one-third of their day participating in a gross motor activity, most times outdoors. If outdoor space is available, weather permitting, children should be provided with time to be outdoors where they are able to move around freely and select gross motor activities such as running, jumping, climbing, throwing, catching, etc. if no outdoor space is available and in cases of inclement weather, students should be provided with adequate indoor space for freedom of movement, where they run, jump, or move in ways that are necessary for students’ appropriate physical learning and development, purposeful play, and self-expression. Children should engage in a minimum of 60 minutes of gross motor activities per day (two 30-minute periods can be provided).

Gross motor activities - particularly outdoors - provide critical benefits to young children including socialization, community cohesion, and physical activity that have been so lost during this pandemic. For additional guidance on gross motor requirements in early childhood classrooms, please refer to the 3-K for All & Pre-K for All Handbook.

Financial Support

The Fund for Public Schools can accept donations from donors and philanthropies interested in supporting outdoor learning experiences. Schools/PTAs interested in raising funds for their own school are requested to contribute a matching amount to support outdoor learning efforts at schools across the city, especially those in the 27 neighborhoods most affected by COVID. To reduce expenses for schools with approved street closures, NYPD will issue street barriers. Barriers must be secured each night and returned to NYPD at the close of each school’s programming calendar.

Security Considerations

Safety & Security

Schools will need to take into account how to ensure safety and security, including fulfilling the objectives of Avonte’s Law (a local law requiring alarms on school doors to prevent children, especially severely disabled children, from leaving school grounds unnoticed) and ensuring that children in the streets are not “ultra-soft” targets for malicious actors. DOE will provide schools with safety guidelines and considerations, including: daily steps for assessing external space (conducted by custodial staff or School Safety Agent); door alarm policies with procedures for deactivating and activating alarms, and monitoring deactivated doors; and emergency readiness policies 

Permission Slips & Parents

In addition to the above concerns around safety and security, parents will have to sign permission slips (electronic capture is highly suggested, but provision should be made for parents/families who do not have electronic access), which should be kept on record, to ensure that students are allowed to participate in outdoor learning activities for parks and streets. Schools conducting outdoor learning only in their existing schoolyard do not need to distribute permission slips.

Co-located campus considerations

Co-located campuses interested in using outdoor space should discuss at building council in a manner consistent with the usual shared space protocols.

Tent Policy Guidance

Tent Usage Limitations

Due to various departmental guidelines, the widespread usage of tents for Outdoor Learning in open streets & public parks is not recommended.  Tents in Streets and Public Parks are subject to approval from the Department of Transportation and NYC Parks Department under their applicable guidelines. Also, complicated tent sent ups requiring equipment to be left overnight is strongly discouraged due to security concerns. Lastly, due to the financial burden tents present, schools may want to budget spending elsewhere. This guidance is only intended to address those instances where tents make sense logistically (in a school’s play yard) and where a clear daily setup/breakdown plan exists. Tents should not be left standing overnight due to security, financial, liability and weather-related concerns.

Tent Purchases

There are no current DOE vendors contracted for tent purchases. Getting items contracted is a lengthy process but can be explored. Schools can suggest which vendor can be contracted Division of Contracts & Purchasing will work to initiate.

It is recommended that schools go the non-contracted vendor purchase route, which requires 3 bids for purchases over $250.00 and follow the standard operating procedure for all purchasing amounts.

Tent rentals may be available, but also not recommended due to cost and impact on school budgets.

PTA’s can also donate to schools and use their funds. As per the prior Outdoor Learning Guidance, we know that some /PTAs may raise funds for their own school, and strongly encourage that those who do so also contribute a matching amount to support outdoor learning efforts at another school in the city in the 27 neighborhoods most affected by COVID. An explanation of how this can be done can be found in the PTA Policy Guidance for Outdoor Learning.

Recommended Tents

Tents with side panels should not be used.

Research indicates that a tent with side panels would behave like any other indoor space and there would be no benefits in risk reduction by outdoor airflow in that enclosure. In addition, “In an outdoor space covered by the canopy tent with fully open sides, the infection risk is significantly reduced by using a well fitted surgical mask.”

An example of the preferred type of tent is below:

White Tent

White tent with walls and a red X over the tent

Tent Safety

Please follow all important safety guidelines when setting up a tent. To reduce the potential of liability, ensure that there is an internal protocol for checking tent stability and that it is safe for children/staff when in use.

Financial Support

As stated in the Outdoor Learning Initiative, access to outdoor spaces will not be determined by additional financial resources. However, we acknowledge that some PTAs may have already raised or are in the process of raising funds for their respective schools. It is strongly encouraged that donors also contribute a matching amount to support outdoor learning efforts at a school in one of the identified 27 neighborhoods most impacted by COVID-19.

In order to address the pressing issue with respect to outdoor learning, the NYCDOE proposes solutions that are immediately available, as well as further guidance and a possible future revision to Chancellor’s Regulation A660 as a long term policy shift to allow voluntary funding to flow from one school’s PTA to another. To accomplish the goals of the Outdoor Learning funding collaboration, NYCDOE proposes the following:

Fundraising Guidance

Fund for Public Schools (FPS) Fundraising

Donors will be able to donate directly to FPS. Funds would be managed as described below:

● Create one philanthropic fund, managed by FPS, to support PTAs/schools that are unable to raise the necessary funds within the 27 neighborhoods most impacted by COVID, so they may also be able to implement their outdoor learning plans.

● FPS will work with a NYCDOE central team, consisting of FACE & Office of School Planning and Development (SPD)

● SPD, on spend-down. The NYCDOE will maintain control of school selection and allowable purchases.

● FPS will work with FACE & SPD on messaging that frames the purpose of donations, how to contribute, while avoiding perceived competition with PAs/PTAs.

PTA/FPS Process

PAs/PTAs can hold fundraisers for their own outdoor learning equipment. Interested parents/donors will be encouraged to make matching donations via the identified FPS process (i.e. a website describing the Outdoor Learning Initiative).

  • PAs/PTAs must follow Chancellor’s Regulation A660 and their bylaws when fundraising. If this guidance conflicts with a PAs/PTAs bylaws, the PA/PTA must follow their bylaws.
  • Generally, a PA/PTA is responsible for its own finances, and must obey certain rules and guidelines about banking, fundraising, and record-keeping. Any association that does fundraising must have a bank account in order to conduct transactions with vendors. Proper record keeping practices must be used by members of the executive board to give an accurate accounting of the association's finances.
  • FPS will support PAs/PTAs as questions arise.

The DOE divisions overseeing this process, in collaboration with FPS, will report the amount of money contributed by donors to support Outdoor Learning and the schools that received the funds.

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