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WATCH NOW: "A silver lining": UM embraces outdoor learning in face of coronavirus pandemic

WATCH NOW: "A silver lining": UM embraces outdoor learning in face of coronavirus pandemic


The sound of the marching band practicing in the background, a slackliner on the Oval, a group of freshmen giggling outside Jesse Hall. Take a walk through campus, and life at the University of Montana seems oddly normal, despite the masks. But even those we’re getting used to.

As summer winds down and Missoula gulps up the last deep breaths of warm, mountain air, UM’s outdoor spaces are taking center stage. Giant tented classrooms erected across campus have brought learning outside and into the open, and in some ways, UM feels more alive than ever.

“It’s been really refreshing and nice to see campus full of life again, even though it does look different,” said Keegan Lundman, a junior studying Russian and history.

The contrast from spring semester, she said, when classes were abruptly moved online and students were suddenly separated from their peers and professors due to the coronavirus pandemic, is stark.

“Last semester, it just kind of came as a shock … having campus be so dead.” 

Many universities that returned to in-person learning this fall have seen outbreaks on campus and some have been forced to reverse course, moving classes online. Temple University announced on Aug. 30 it would return to online learning after more than 100 students tested positive, according to its website.

In a previous article, Missoula City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy called UM's reopening plan "safe" and "conservative," but also said in a video that the 20- to 29-year-old age group brings the largest proportion of cases in Missoula County.

For now, UM has been able to continue in-person learning, partially due to its new outdoor learning spaces, which put the magic of the classroom on full display.

“How would you say, ‘Are you ready to order?’” asked UM Russian language professor Ona Renner-Fahey last week. Her class of seven Advanced Russian students sat in chairs forming a socially-distanced semi-circle in front of her under a large white tent, transforming the campus tennis court into a classroom.

A masked student answered, and she wrote his response on a white dry erase board built on a mobile constructed wood stand, and she had the class repeat it.

“I keep telling people, I’m teaching under a wedding tent. It’s quite fabulous,” Renner-Fahey said in an interview after class.

As the period went on, sounds of the breeze, a skateboarder riding by and a pair playing tennis in an unoccupied adjacent court didn’t seem to faze the students, but a small pause had to be taken to observe a furious battle between two squirrels on a nearby tree trunk.

“Some of them said last time, ‘We hope they’ll do this even post-pandemic because it’s so nice to be outside,” Renner-Fahey said.

“It’s kind of always a push for students wanting professors to do class outside when it’s nice and warm, so honestly I just think it’s really nice regardless,” said Lundman, a student in Renner-Fahey’s class.

The idea for outdoor tent classrooms came about this past summer as UM officials worked to lower capacities of indoor classrooms ahead of an in-person return to school.

“(The capacities) had to come down so much,” said Kim Nielson, with UM Facilities Services. “We promised the students face-to-face classes, and the professors still wanted to try and get there.”

UM identified 13 outdoor open spaces around campus that would be appropriate to hold classes, and after a suggestion by President Seth Bodnar, partnered with local party rental companies to bring in tents so the spaces could be sheltered.

“I think everybody’s enjoying being outside, and they feel safer outside, and we’ve been very fortunate to not have bad weather so far and not be engulfed by the forest fire smoke,” Nielson said.

Twelve of the outdoor classrooms are assigned to individual schools for use, which they had to request this summer, with an additional overflow classroom that anyone can use.

Many of the spaces have whiteboards constructed by Facilities Services’ carpentry shop in addition to chairs for students, but professors must bring their own markers and erasers so as to not share germs.

Renner-Fahey said she’s used the tennis court outdoor classroom for all but two periods so far, when students had to take a test.

“I have an indoor classroom as well, which I use when they’re taking tests,” she said. “They all have a desk and they’re not speaking, so I feel more comfortable.”

And while the squirrels were too much to ignore, Renner-Fahey said the only other concern she has is if her class overlaps with campus grass mowing.

“We only had one morning where somebody was cutting the grass and it wasn’t even 10 minutes,” she said. “For the most part, (teaching outside) is my favorite part of the semester.”

Across campus, music echoed from another big white tent, where a Jazz I dance class was going over its routine.

“Five, six, seven, eight!” clapped Brooklyn Draper, as her students began a spunky series of moves under the tent outside Corbin Hall.

The visiting assistant professor in the School of Theater and Dance has been teaching her in-person dance classes in the outdoor tent classroom since school started.

After a group of the masked dancers in her class sashayed and popped to the beat through the grassy yard under the shade of the tent, Draper called out for a “water and mask break.” The students, already six feet apart, spread even further to lower their face coverings and took a few deep breaths before jumping back into action.

Draper said the School of Theater and Dance requested outdoor tent space after seeing more and more research come out about COVID-19 being spread through aerosols.

“Because of what we’re doing, we’re breathing hard,” she said in an interview after class. “Just the more and more research we read, we were like, OK, it’s maybe not safe to be in the studios right now.”

While there are some dance courses being taught through Zoom, they were able to schedule all of their in-person dance classes in the outdoor spaces.

The feedback for the outdoor classrooms has been mainly positive, Nielson said, but there are some challenges.

Renner-Fahey wears a mask for class outside even though it’s not required by school policy because she said she’s still nervous about the pandemic and also wants to set a good example.

Besides the distractions of mowers and squirrels, learning language through a mask can be difficult.

“It is challenging when you can’t see someone speaking, especially in a foreign language. But it hasn’t been as bad as I kind of thought it would be,” Lundman said. “It’s also a good challenge because it forces you to really listen, which is something that is difficult to develop in a foreign language, is your comprehension.”

For the dancers, training under the tent is different from what students would receive in a studio because they have to keep socially distant and dance on uneven ground.

“My hope is that when we get back into the studio, we’re actually going to be stronger because balancing on this, it’s building muscle around the entire leg, which is important,” Draper said.

They too have had to deal with minor distractions and sometimes garner an audience of students passing by who stop for an informal show.

“On the first day, I told them, I just want to acknowledge that this is extra vulnerable,” Draper said.

Freshman Olivia Willoughby, who’s studying musical theater and taking Draper’s Jazz I course, said while she feels exposed outside, she’s also using it to quell any stage fright she has.

“Dance is really a safe space for a lot of people, especially like me … but honestly it’s been a very good experience, especially for a musical theater major.”

And while the weather has been nice so far, western Montana can be unpredictable in early fall, so how long the outdoor classrooms can be used is up in the air.

“I think we’re going to play it by ear,” said Renner-Fahey. “I did tell them a number of times and I included this in writing and email, to dress for it.”

“We just have to take it day by day, because you know last week there was smoke, so we had to consider that. Monday it was raining and it was cold,” Draper added.

Nielson with Facilities Services said professors all have backup indoor classrooms or have plans to transition to remote learning should the weather impede use of the outdoor spaces.

“We were told at our first day of jazz that we’re going to keep going until it’s impossible, so it’s very likely we might have a little bit of snow going on,” Willoughby said. “But it’s OK because we get to have in-person classes. It’s the sacrifice that we’re willing to make.”

The word that seems to come up repeatedly regarding UM’s return to in-person learning on campus is “flexibility,” and both the students and staff know they have a better chance of staying on campus if everyone follows the rules.

Many schools are encouraging professors to hold class outside on their own, even without the use of the tented spaces.

Kevin Bell, director of the School of Art, said the school purchased portable easels and drawing boards to allow for more outside learning this year.

“A number of our programs, especially drawing and painting, a lot of them are taught outside,” he said. “I think everyone’s in a little bit better mood being outside in the sunshine, so that’s been kind of a silver lining.”

They’ve also made updates to their indoor facilities, adding Plexiglas screens between work spaces in the ceramics area and building a Plexiglas kiosk where students can have remote Zoom meetings with their professors.

“We actually spent the summer working really hard to get our facilities ready for students. Art especially is such a high touch area with lots of equipment and lots of one-on-one instruction,” Bell said.

For the indoor classrooms being used around campus, where masks are required, UM has removed and blocked off chairs for social distancing and provided cleaning supplies and sanitizers so students can wipe down their spaces at the start of class.

Lundman, who has two indoor classes in the University Center Ballroom and the Education Building, said she’s felt comfortable inside because of the mask mandate and UM’s spacing of students.

“I think people are doing a pretty good job of following the rules for masks and professors are enforcing them, because we all want to stay in person,” she said. “It is so much nicer, especially for upper level and discussion-based classes, to be able to meet in person.”

Her class in the Ballroom has around 50 students, but she said the space is so big, each classmate gets their own table.

Draper said even in the outdoor spaces, professors work to continue to remind students to keep their distance and carry the protocols they practice on campus with them off campus.

“I know that the president and other upper administration continue to remind students, and I tell my students … what we’re doing here, it doesn’t matter if you’re going out” on the weekends, she said. “If you want to be face-to-face, then you’ve got to stay home.”

Bell also said he has no idea what happens once students leave campus, but he’s been impressed with students’ seriousness regarding masks and distancing while in class.

Willoughby, just starting out in her college career, said she feels the university is doing the work to keep students safe, adding she’s proud of the campus community for how the semester has gone so far.

“Everyone is doing their part to keep open because we want to keep it like this, we want to have somewhat of a normal experience of college.”

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