Outdoor Schools
Residential Outdoor Education in the Time of COVID
Fresh air and a change of scenery does wonders for students and adults
Dr. Roberta McFarland
Director, Waskowitz Outdoor School, Highline PS
Evaluation Criteria: Ensuring School Safety, Improving Instruction
“In Highline, we know what a profound impact a week at Camp Waskowitz has on students, because alumni passionately share their stories years, and even decades, later. Especially for students growing up in an urban environment, having an opportunity to experience learning in nature is equity in action. We were confident our safety measures would allow students to have this important experience without putting them at increased risk for COVID, and that has proven to be true thanks to our dedicated staff and the cooperation of our students and families.” Dr. Susan Enfield, Superintendent, Highline Public Schools, Washington State Superintendent of the Year
In the summer of 2021, residential summer camps successfully offered and ran programs for youth. Residential outdoor schools should be able to move forward with planning a return to learn – after all, residential is residential, right?
Yes, many aspects are the same: time outside, sleeping in cabins, multiple days with other campers, campfires, and hikes.
So what does summer camp have that outdoor school doesn’t?
Warm days with natural light from 6 a.m. until after 9 p.m. each day. Warm nights support open windows – natural ventilation for safe sleeping, serving all meals outdoors, stress-free. It is easy to limit all indoor activities and adapt all activities to the outdoors. Summers are the perfect venue for all outdoor activities in the Pacific Northwest.
Highline’s outdoor school program, Camp Waskowitz, has been providing quality outdoor education since 1947. Highline families think of a week at Waskowitz as a rite of passage, following in the tradition of great grandparents, grandparents, parents and siblings. My staff and I were determined to safely open this fall for the sixth-grade Highline students.
Our first group arrived on Sept. 27, and so did the rain – river-swelling rain! The amount of daylight in autumn is significantly less. We recognized following the summer camp guidelines would need to be adapted due to weather and sunlight constraints. Fortunately, Waskowitz was able to mitigate the transmission of the virus by following the guidance of the Washington Department of Health through multiple layers of COVID safety protocols. We have successfully and safely completed 10 weeks of outdoor school for all of our sixth-grade students.
Teachers from one session shared that their motto for the week was, “If we are to be in a storm, let’s dance in the rain! If we are in a pandemic, let’s get outside safely and explore!”
The support and partnership with Health Commons is truly a game changer. Health Commons developed a rapid testing program and protocol for outdoor schools and their partner schools. This facilitated testing for all students that attend outdoor schools in Washington state with a negative reading according to the Department of Health in order to attend residential outdoor school. We are also able to administer diagnostic testing for students who display symptoms of COVID while on site.

Highline’s Health Related COVID Response Team, led by Director Jemma Kim, provided COVID-19 tests for sixth-grade students attending overnight camp programs. The success of our Waskowitz Screening Testing program required responsiveness and diligence from all parties involved: from the parents who completed consent forms and prepared their students to undergo a self-swab; to the teachers who provided class rosters and verified consents; to the directors and facilitators that planned testing events and consolidated information; to the COVID Response Team that ensured all samples were collected and analyzed properly; and to the students who laughed at our team's "nose tickle" jokes and "boogers down!" commands when instructing them on how to self-swab! Students stayed in their class “pods” for instruction and eating. Meals were served in shifts with assigned seating to increase social distancing and for ease of contact tracing should the need arise.
Students roomed by gender with the same students in their class “pods.” Beds were arranged for distance and labeled “head” or “toe,” so students were not sleeping facing each other. Windows were open and air purifiers placed in strategic spots. We provided sleeping bags and extra blankets to keep students warm.
Most aspects of our outdoor school curriculum remained, including longer outdoor campfire programs, and activities adjusted in our covered shelters. We purchased heavy duty ponchos to ensure students would be dry to maintain outdoor activities.
Our curriculum includes two all-day hikes within our 372-acre facility, with a packed lunch. When students were across our bridge to the 340 acres of trails, they could choose whether to wear their masks. In the main camp, inside or out, we required mask wearing.
Was it worth it?
A resounding YES! Students who haven’t been in school for a full year (since third grade) stated, outdoor school was the best week of their life, and they had so much fun. They made friends and explored nature. Tears flowed as they were loading onto the bus for the return trip. Teachers actually felt they had a week with a return to the joy of teaching. The words and phrases they used to describe the return to Waskowitz included: needed, important, wonderful, fantastic for me and my students, best week in a long time! They connected with their students in ways not possible in a classroom. Outdoor School faculty described the work as HARD, constantly pivoting and rethinking each week to be efficient and effective while accommodating for COVID safety. All agreed it was really important to fill our center with the laughter and smiles of our students. Not all families choose to send their students to outdoor school. About 25-30% of students did not attend with their class, creating a need for schools to either hire a sub or rearrange class assignments for the week. Waskowitz was able to provide virtual learning assignments and videos for those students that did not attend.
Students were anecdotally more “squirrely,” wanting to run everywhere, touching each other and not being able to quiet down or focus when asked. We also noticed stamina for hiking was off as well. Staff and high school volunteers were provided training in SEL and looking for students who might need extra emotional support.
Teachers from one session shared that their motto for the week was, “If we are to be in a storm, let’s dance in the rain! If we are in a pandemic, let’s get outside safely and explore!”
“One of the few programs that flourished during COVID times was the Outdoor Residential Program at Camp Waskowitz! Our camp staff and partners put together a rigorous ten week program that kept pace with and followed the ever changing guidelines. Campers arrived with wide eyes and left with big smiles! A huge congratulations to all involved!” Scott Logan, Chief Operations Officer, Highline Public Schools
COVID TESTING LOGISTICS The type of test utilized to screen students for a Monday morning departure varied depending on the test result timeline.
The ideal testing strategy was to use pool/batch tests to sample all students in-school on Friday. Pool tests were PCR, the gold-standard for testing accuracy. They were fiscally responsible because of the lower cost per test and results were available by Saturday morning. If a batch came back positive, reflex testing would be scheduled for Monday morning prior to departure to identify the positive case in the batch.
Reflex testing was conducted using rapid tests, with results available in 15 minutes. If testing was not feasible on Friday, due to non-work days and holidays, my team conducted large-scale rapid testing for all students prior to their departure on Monday morning. This was not ideal due to the labor-demand of rapid tests but was made possible through teamwork and flexibility.
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Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22