One of the most confusing things about the debate over how to reopen schools is that so few people are advocating that students spend their schooldays outdoors, and that so few schools (if any) are choosing to leave the schoolhouse behind. We know that the best way to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is to stay home. The second best way seems to be to avoid spending time indoors with others. But despite this knowledge, schools are focused on reducing the number of students inside the building at any given time through hybrid or part-time models, mandatory masking, social distancing enforcement, hygiene protocols, screening of students and staff, and isolation and quarantine. While these efforts will help to reduce the likelihood of transmission in schools, they are insufficient. Bringing students and staff together in schools is going to lead to outbreaks that will contribute to the spread of Covid-19.
In early June we announced our plan to operate in geographically separated, five- to eight-person operating cells in public parks. Being outdoors in small groups greatly reduces the risk of transmission among our community members, limits the potential of a community outbreak, and helps us protect our family members, housemates, and the broader Austin community. It is the right thing to do, and it allows us to continue to come together to build community with and support each other during these difficult times. But it is going to be hot. Texas is hot in September. And heat can be dangerous. And Facilitators need to keep their wits about them so that they can attend to the needs of the Learners.
In order to prepare to be outdoors this school year I am focusing on acclimating to the heat, physical fitness, and training.
There are no two ways about it, to be able to operate in the heat (and humidity), we need to spend time outdoors. To develop my heat tolerance I have been relying less on air conditioning when indoors. While I am not yet comfortable with 78 degrees indoors, I am comfortable with 75 degrees. And I will slowly allow the temperature to rise. And beginning this week I am spending an hour during the day outdoors doing activities such as reading or gardening. Each week I will increase the time I spend outdoors by one hour. By the week of August 17th I will be spending six hours outdoors, the length of our day at Abrome. I will then continue to spend at least six hours outdoors every other day for the remainder of the summer. One can lose their tolerance in as little as one week. And as the Abrome Learners will tell you, hydrate or die. I choose hydration.
Facilitating with young children and adolescents can be exhausting even in air conditioned environments. Doing so outdoors this coming September will not be any easier. I need to improve my physical fitness levels so that I can support the Abrome Learners in the Texas heat. Just like my heat acclimation efforts, I am slowly easing into my preparation and not jumping in too aggressively. I am continuing to do 7-minute workouts and pull-ups as I had been doing during the time that we were operating remotely. But I have also begun running three times per week (starting very slowly) and doing two light yoga sessions per week. As my endurance and cardiovascular fitness improves I plan to increase the intensity of my runs and pick up weight training. As we move into late August, as part of my heat acclimation efforts, I will also spend time hiking in the public parks we will be operating out of this coming year.
It is one thing to prepare to be in the heat all day as an individual, but as a Facilitator I am also responsible for the Abrome Learners. Therefore, in early August the Abrome Facilitators (and prospective Facilitators) will go through a CPR and basic first aid training. I am also bringing in a trainer from a nature school to help us develop protocols and skills that will allow us to support Learners in various outdoor contexts and conditions. In mid-August the Facilitators will come together to practice facilitation in outdoor settings among ourselves. Then, the following week, we will invite current Abrome Learners to join Facilitators for four days as we practice the skills and activities that we will be using in the coming year. On the fifth day Facilitators will review everything that we experienced and learned so that we can finalize our preparations before we open on September 8th (or whenever pandemic conditions allow us to).
The challenges of this coming year are daunting but exciting. There is still so much to prepare for and so much to learn. I don’t know what I don’t know, but I am leaning heavily on people who have experience working with young people outdoors, and I am trying to remember some of the more challenging lessons learned from my Army Ranger School days (from 20 years ago). This is going to be such a fun learning experience!