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Forest schools: An alternative to in-classroom or remote learning

provided photo
Tyler Nichols, 14, of Avoca

Tyler Nichols is ready to start his sophomore year of high school. 

He's looking forward to it, especially because it would mean he can be around kids his own age for the first time in several months.

"I'm a person who likes just seeing people every day," he said.

But even though most school districts in upstate New York will be allowed to reopen in September under the criteria outlined Monday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Tyler will not be returning to Avoca high school in Steuben County, where he lives.

That's not even a possibility for the 14-year-old, who has a complicated medical history.

Tyler has survived about 70 procedures and surgeries, including bowel, liver and pancreas transplants when he was 3 years old.

He is also missing a spleen and takes immune-suppressing medications so his body doesn't reject his donated organs.

What's more, his veins are scarred from the treatments he's received, so if he ever got COVID-19 and was hospitalized, it would be hard to administer intravenous medications.

“And unfortunately, even if they were to come up with a vaccine, it will be a live vaccine, which means he wouldn’t be eligible to receive it, either,” said Tyler's mom, Lisa Nichols. 

She said there's no way he can safely enter a school building during the pandemic. Nor does she see at-home learning as a viable option. 

Nichols says Tyler, who is normally an eager student, lost interest in school in the last four months.

“He just kind of stopped caring and didn’t feel the motivation to put in the effort," she said.

Tyler said it was confusing to try to absorb lessons without classroom instruction.

"I think when we were online schooling," he explained, "I was being kind of robbed of an education because it wasn't standard and it wasn't typically what we would have been learning, because the teachers had to rush things into certain areas."


Credit provided photo
Tyler Nichols does schoolwork as his dog, Rogue, keeps him company.

So, with remote learning and in-school classes both off the table, the family found a third choice.

Tyler is now enrolled in the Walden Project, a one-year, independent learning program for high school students that takes place mostly outdoors and in groups of 15 or fewer students.  

"There was one (Centers for Disease Control) guideline that said, 'Try to circulate as much outdoor air into your learning environment as possible,' and I just had to laugh because that's all we have, is outdoor air," said Andy Webster, the director of the program and one of its teachers.

He said he's heard from a number of families looking for alternatives for their kids this fall.

"My phone's been ringing off the hook with inquiries about what our program is."

The Walden Project is based at Cumming Nature Center in Naples, which is operated by the Rochester Museum & Science Center. Students spend time in the woods studying traditional high school courses like English, math, and social studies.

They also have discussions based on the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau.

Even though the outdoor classroom already lends itself to social distancing, Webster said they're taking additional precautions.

For instance, an outdoor sink will be installed in the woods. It has a foot-powered pump that connects to a hose and a five-gallon bucket of water.

"Not to promise that we're going to suddenly make it impossible for your kid to get COVID," he said, "but everything that the scientists and the health experts are saying is that fresh air and small groups is better, and that's what we do."

Nichols is at peace with that. She said she wants what's best for Tyler, and she's trying to  balance his social, emotional, and academic needs along with his health.

“There really is no 100% fail-proof, safe thing," she said. "For us, this is the safest thing that also allows a medically fragile child to resume some sense of normalcy.” 

The Walden Project rents space from Cumming Nature Center, but the two entities are exploring a more formal partnership. 

Cumming also offers a "forest school" for students between the ages of 4 and 12. That program is expanding this fall to four days a week.

Nathan Hayes, the center’s director, said he has had inquiries from parents who are considering a hybrid of home-schooling and a structured program, as well as families who are in need of child care during the week.

He said that’s new for the school.

"Primarily, we weren't really serving a public school audience,” Hayes said. “Most of the students we have served at forest school are home-schoolers."

Perhaps one reason is some districts, according to Hayes, don’t look favorably on the forest school program and will mark a student absent for the day if they attend the program.

The Walden Project is considered a “year away” program for high school students or a gap year alternative for high school graduates. Webster said he has applied for accreditation for the program from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.