Feature Story

September 2020

Teaching in the Time of COVID

Catherine Koons Hubbard, Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool, Milwaukee WI

Like so many of you across the country, last March our beloved Nature Preschool abruptly shut down due to COVID-19. We did the best we could to continue a connection with the children through Zoom, Facebook, and Marco Polo. But we all knew these screen-based interactions could in no way compare to authentic, live experiences in nature. We wanted our Nature Preschool back. 
Yet, when the decision was made to reopen in June for ten weeks of summer programming, there was definite hesitation. As eager as we were to teach outdoors and not on screens, there was an apprehension about returning to school that had never been there before. Teachers were nervous. Parents were nervous. We spent two full months working through our reopening details, at a time when the guidelines were changing weekly. We did our best to establish new protocols, which we hoped would keep everyone healthy and safe, without losing the heart of who we were in the process. To say it was an anxious time is an understatement. 
For us, the hardest part of reopening was the period before the children arrived. Once we were actually back in the classroom, under a canopy of maples and basswoods, we were able to exhale. Today, as we round the corner of August and a new school year feels just seconds away, I see this same anxiety in many of my friends and colleagues tasked with safely reopening their schools. This is not an easy time to be an administrator or teacher. I admit that even now I get nervous. But I’m also grateful for the past ten weeks, as we learned so much that is helping us now, as we transition into a new kind of normal. 
And so here, for what it’s worth, are some of the unexpected, positive outcomes of our summer that I thought were worth sharing with my fellow educators...
First, for every loss, there has been a gain. We have had to give up many of our beloved traditions, including our annual Harvest Soup celebration and our upcoming all-school nature hike. It is normal and appropriate to mourn these losses (and to remember that they are hopefully temporary). But these gaps also create opportunities to dream up something new. For us, coming up with this “something new” has allowed us to get excited again. Excitement is an antidote to stress. 
This year, we replaced our all-school late summer nature hike with a downloadable nature quest that families can complete on their own. We will create additional quests throughout the year, highlighting some of our favorite spots on the trails. Likewise, we replaced our indoor, all-school soup parties with a plan to gather each class around an outdoor campfire where we will learn to make our own fry bread. We will also eat berries, and will read books (Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Wild Berries by Julie Flett) that celebrate food, family, indigenous language, opening up conversations about traditions and cultures that may be new to us.   
Second, eliminating some of our previous practices actually strengthened our program. Like so many others, we made the decision to move our groups entirely outdoors this summer, only coming inside if we needed to seek shelter from hazardous weather. This was done in the name of health, but it turned out eliminating the inside portion of our day simplified things in ways we had not anticipated. We loved the easy transitions from outdoor check-in to outdoor play, from outdoor group time to outdoor hiking. By the end of the summer, the idea of having an indoor component actually seemed burdensome. 
Before we reopened, we determined that we would need to keep our groups separate. Not co-mingling our classes was strictly in response to COVID-19, and at times we did miss crossing paths with friends and siblings in other groups. But, by keeping our groups isolated, it was possible to spend a full week outside rarely seeing anyone else. It often felt as though we had the entire forest, or beach, or pond, to ourselves. This was often a magical feeling. 
We also opted not to offer a snack this summer due to concerns about how to manage it safely. While initially it felt like a hard decision, to our surprise we found no one missed it. Of course, this may not be an option for other programs, and we do intend to serve snacks on occasion during the school year. But by eliminating snacks this summer, we found more time in our day to sit around the circle and talk, to build complex fairy houses, to create nature cookbooks. Without snacks, children had more time for uninterrupted play and the teachers had more time between classes to clean, talk, and eat their own lunches. The entire day flowed more easily. 
Third, our new cleaning practices made for a healthier environment. This sounds obvious, but it is still worth stating. Not only did no one in our program come down with COVID-19, no one came down with anything: it may have been our healthiest summer yet. We installed sinks in our outdoor classrooms. We had children wash their hands upon arrival, after clean up, and after hiking. We washed our equipment between uses, and put it away clean every time. We used alcohol to disinfect our walkie-talkies after every use (and wondered why we hadn’t been doing so for the past eighteen years). Without getting complacent or over-confident, I think that many of the measures we now have in place to keep us safe from COVID-19 will also protect us from other illnesses. Speaking as someone who has caught just about every cold that has ever passed through our hallways, this is a definite benefit.
Finally, this summer reminded me, yet again, of the positive impact nature can have on a child. Of course, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. However, watching our preschool children experience the woods and the beach in the company of their peers after months of at-home isolation was truly poignant for all of us. It reiterated just how healing and valuable nature can be. It did not matter if our students went home understanding the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. What mattered was seeing them full of joy, connecting to nature and to each other, in ways they had been denied for so long.
This is what I leave you with, as you cope with ever-changing rosters, worried parent inquires, and seemingly endless policy updates. There are no crystal balls and none of us knows what’s coming next. But as soon as the children are back in your program and you can step outside, once again, with your students, I am confident your planning will fall into place. That is when you will finally get to exhale. 

About the Author

Catherine Koons Hubbard is the Nature Preschool Director at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was a 2019 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School. Prior to taking this on in 2016, Catherine worked as a Nature Preschool teacher in the classroom and on the trails from 2008-2015. Catherine has a BA in Anthropology from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and a Masters’ Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has taught environmental education in Philadelphia, Oregon, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.