COVID-safer learning? Durham school board OKs plans for outdoor classrooms

DURHAM. N.C. (WTVD) -- Facing increased pressure to help make schools more pandemic-safe, Durham's school board easily passed a motion to move forward with plans for outdoor classrooms.

On the same week that COVID-19 clusters were identified at two Durham elementary schools and a petition to return to virtual learning at Hillside High, the measure passed unanimously at the board's Thursday night work session.

The decision paves the way for the design stage of the outdoor classrooms: separate learning spaces outside of the traditional brick and mortar school where COVID can thrive and spread faster.

It's a plan that DPS was debating before the pandemic, but is pushing harder for now as districts struggle to stop the spread in schools.

"When would these (outdoor classrooms) come online? It is something people are going to be excited about," DPS board member Natalie Beyer asked district design chief Fredrick Davis.

"Realistically, I'd expect we could start construction close to next summer," Davis responded.

Pittsboro-based Hobbs Architects won over the school board with its renderings of canopied classrooms with slanted rooftops -- designed to block the sun no matter the season and allow for a breeze.

"So regardless whether it was during the summer or the winter, it would still be able to offer shade to the children. So I did think that's impressive," DPS board member Frederick Ravin said in his comments about the renderings.

While the board voted to move forward on the outdoor classroom design, hurdles remain. Including permit approval from the city and navigating the process of securing federal funding from the CARES Act to pay for the new construction.

"Are their colleagues that would help expedite that, understanding that this is a public health issue," Beyer asked district staff.

DPS Chief Financial Officer Paul LeSieur told the panel the process is moving slowly.

"Everything is a delay on getting things moving. We're going to start moving because we can't wait any longer," LeSieur said.

The design phase begins in earnest now. Davis described a complex process involving different schools with varying sized spaces. If construction does begin this summer, it won't all be at once.

Davis said to expect a few schools at a time.
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