Father Serra School students take part in gym class under a tent in the school yard. Photo courtesy of the TCDSB

Schools utilizing tents as learning spaces

  • October 25, 2020

Tents are being used to expand classroom space in the outdoors at a number of Toronto Catholic schools as they work to ensure staff and student safety while preventing the spread of COVID-19.

In a pilot program, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) has rented commercial tent structures to provide sheltered outdoor space for activities such as gym, music and reading circles. The 20- by 40-foot structures were installed in schoolyards at select schools to combat spacing challenges from safety requirements imposed due to the pandemic.

Dolores Rios, principal at Father Serra Catholic School in Toronto’s west end, says the tents have been helpful in mitigating capacity issues caused by reduced class sizes. Located in an area of the city identified as “high incidence” for virus transmission, the school has maximized all indoor space, including the gym, library and an outdoor portable normally used for music, as socially-distanced classrooms. 

“Right now, we are using it primarily for physical education classes, as it does give coverage from the sun and from rain,” said Rios. “We’ll be using it for music classes potentially also. Although kids can’t sing inside or outside, it does provide them that fresh air that they need and they can take their masks off.”

The school has had an 89.5-per-cent return-to-class rate among its students, which Rios says is one of the highest in the board. With approximately 500 students plus staff in the building daily, Father Serra had to make several changes to daily operation to ensure the school runs as efficiently as possible.

“There’s not a lot that’s changed by way of kids coming to school, so we had to change a lot of procedure and protocol,” said Rios. “I try to communicate as best as possible with the parents because if they don’t know what’s going on, they’re hesitant and rightfully so.

“I think the more formation that we can give them about expectations and protocol, the better prepared everybody is and the better everybody feels about coming in.”

St. Eugene Catholic School has also been piloting the tents for gym classes and has found ways to conduct art class here or there. The tent has a capacity for one class socially distanced and side panels that open and shut using Velcro allow for adjustable ventilation. As the calendar moves into the colder weather months, principal Kirsten Kelly says the board is considering installing heaters as the tents are likely to be all the more important to provide shelter in replacement of indoor recess.

“The best part of the tent is the kids don’t have to wear their masks,” said Kelly. “At this point, most of them go out together during their recesses but we haven’t yet had to schedule tent use. They’re in groups and cohorts and (the teachers) sort of talk to each other to decide who’s using the tent at what point. Once the cooler days come, I think we’ll have to put a schedule together so that two classes don’t go out at the same time.”

All things considered, Rios and Kelly say their schools have been adjusting well to the new format. Indoors, desks have also recently been fitted with Plexiglass shields as a further measure to limit transmission. Instead of going to a cafeteria for lunch, students now eat at their desks behind the shields where they are able to remove masks but must ask permission to get up to throw something away.

“Originally we’d said bring all garbage home, so they don’t have to get out of their seats at all, but we’re actually pretty lucky to now have Plexiglass around every desk,” said Kelly. “Every student is in their own bubble now, so they can take their mask off and they can cough, and it should go nowhere. They still have to wear their masks (the rest of the day), but we are that much safer for our lunch time.”

Due to cost and maintenance issues and uncertainty of the pandemic’s duration, the TCDSB has opted to rent rather than purchase the tents. As schools journey through the semester, Rios says the success of the tent project will be assessed to determine future investment.

“I would imagine we will be surveyed and asked how we used it, what we used it for and whether we thought it was beneficial, to see if the board should continue to pay the cost of maintaining the tent,” said Rios. “We’re going to try our best to use it in as many creative ways as possible and see if it’s worth it to continue after these four months.”

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