To protect against the coronavirus, Regis University has taken classes to the great outdoors. Classes on the quad and in parking lots take advantage of natural ventilation, allow students and teachers to meet, and even enable choir and band to practice.

Compared with the constriction of last spring’s distance learning, Associate Professor Stacy Chamberlin said of outdoor education: “This is a breath of fresh air.”

Regis leaders hope that meeting outside will both safeguard students and teachers and also restore a more normal college experience.

Last spring students expressed their dissatisfaction with remote learning and with paying for an experience devoid of many of the social and academic benefits normally expected at a college campus.

Thanks to the outdoor setting, Regis University Provost Janet Houser said she expects the school to be able to offer a fuller college experience than in the spring.

“We are hopeful that this is following some good science and could prevent or push back the time that we’d need to go fully online,” Houser said. “We want students to have as much engagement with each other as possible.”

As the new semester started last week, students gathered in circles around professors teaching class on the quad, everyone 6 feet apart and wearing masks. They discussed physics. Others furiously debated mask mandates as part of a point-counterpoint exercise. 

While some faculty convened classes in the shade of trees, others taught under blue awnings — including the physics awning named Fort Einstein.

Many Colorado public colleges and universities are relying mostly on remote learning when classes don’t have a required hands-on learning component. At Regis, a private Jesuit school, attending class on campus is optional; some students may choose to participate only online. And about 80% of Regis’ classes are online, with most of those classes concentrated among graduate and doctoral programs that teach the majority of the school’s 8,000 students. Some classes might also have a hybrid component.

The outdoor classes contrast with most other Colorado colleges whose in-person plans call for capping classroom capacity and installing plexiglass partitions to separate students and professors. Regis also has classrooms ready for that style of indoor learning, but expects to rely on the outdoors as a major part of its strategy during the pandemic, Houser said.

In preventing the spread of the coronavirus, scientists have stressed the importance of good ventilation and suggested the outdoors poses less risk. If Regis is to return to classroom buildings, the school’s leaders plan to improve ventilation, including the simple act of opening classroom doors.

The outdoor setting is not always ideal, Chamberlin said. August’s 90-degree temperatures and smoke from Colorado’s wildfires have created difficult teaching conditions.

But with the tradeoffs of teaching students in-person, Chamberlin said “I’m sort of willing to sweat it out.”

While she is concerned about the risk of being in front of students, she is willing to give the outdoor setting a chance, especially after the spring semester.

Meeting in person allows robust debate, which is difficult to reproduce through Zoom meetings, she said. Chamberlin said online instruction hurt her mental health.

“Last year, I was teaching while also teaching my own kids at home, and trying to balance that was really difficult,” Chamberlin said.

Alaina Valdespino, 19, a sophomore from Texas, said she is happy to be back on campus after moving home mid-spring semester. She is especially happy about returning to choir classes. Students will perform this fall under tents and will use special singing masks to reduce the spread of droplets while still allowing singers to project their voice.

The band also will rehearse under a large tent that will be heated in the winter, Houser said.

As a music minor, Valdespino said that Zoom didn’t work well with her choir classes in the spring. So teachers shifted instruction to instead focus on student mental health. In other subjects, class discussions didn’t measure up to meeting in the same room, she said.

Regis University choir students rehearse under an awning with special masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

“Many people wouldn’t even have their cameras on and, like, it’s really hard to interact with someone who isn’t really there,” she said.

Valdespino said she’s skeptical about outdoor learning persisting, given the challenges. But she did think that Regis is doing everything it can to keep students safe. 

She hopes the university’s strategy works, because the chance to be back on campus, to interact and debate with fellow students, and to sing once again with others is worth enduring the Colorado heat — and the cold that will soon follow.

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.