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Schools, funder getting creative with outdoor learning space, pod

As Denver Public Schools plans for a gradual and uncertain return to in-person learning, some individual schools and a local foundation are devising ways to support at least a small number of kids most in need of some extra help.

Three schools in the Park Hill and Northeast Park Hill neighborhoods — McAuliffe International School, Stedman Elementary School and Smith Elementary School — are erecting large event tents on their property in the coming days to provide either in-person support to students who have been struggling with remote learning or safe classroom space when students return to in-person classes later this fall.

The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities is paying for the tents at Smith and Stedman — about $20,000 total — and helping with logistics.

There has been a growing push across the country for learning outdoors while weather permits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists are confident that the virus is less transmissible outdoors, and well-ventilated tents are safer than sealed indoor spaces like traditional classrooms.

To date DPS has made no large-scale move in this direction. Nor have district officials interfered with the plans of the three schools to erect the tents.

“We are installing three 40 x 100-foot canopies on campus tomorrow,” said Kurt Dennis, McAuliffe’s executive principal. “We can safely accommodate 110 students under each canopy (36 square feet per student). This will provide us with the equivalent of another 12 classrooms and concerns regarding ventilation will not be as much of an issue.”

Brian Weber, the foundation’s vice president of education and development initiatives, said Smith and Stedman will use their tents to allow a small number of students to do their remote learning together, and with adults on hand to support them and provide structure during those times when the students are not online with their classes.

“The schools are thrilled and see this as an extension of school, and a good way to do it safely,” Weber said.

The foundation is also setting up and funding a ‘learning pod’ in the Northfield section of the Central Park neighborhood. A handful of low-income students from three elementary schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone (Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, Swigert Elementary, and Willow Elementary) in need of hands-on help will be able to attend the pod for full days, five days per week through at least mid-October at no cost to families.

Leaders of the three schools are selecting the students who would benefit most from participating in the pod, Weber said. A few families living in Northeast Denver Housing Center’s 350 affordable rental apartments will also be able to send their kids to the pod.

Between 30 and 40 students will participate in the pod. It will be held in a large community room owned by the Central Park Master Community Association, which is providing the space at no cost. The room is large enough to allow appropriate social distancing, Weber said. Initially, the pod will be staffed by a DPS substitute teacher and a paraprofessional.

The pod benefits parents as well as their children. “These are people working essential jobs, so they have to physically go to work, and with kids at home for remote learning, this is causing serious problems,” Weber said. “This pod can’t serve everyone in need in our area, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Currently, DPS is planning to return to in-person classes on Oct. 21. The learning pod will operate until then, Weber said, and could go longer if the resumption of school gets delayed by spikes in virus cases.

Weber said the foundation has committed close to $10,000 to supporting the pod through late October.