Monticello schools look to nature-based classes during COVID-19 pandemic

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Nestled beneath huge trees that line the Mississippi River at Ellison Park in Monticello, there will soon be an outdoor classroom for elementary students.

It will be one of six sites for the district’s new nature-based learning classes that will be held outdoors.

Melanie Stuber already has her 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in the preschool version that launched last year.

"I would rather have my kids outside during the day than inside in a building," she said.

After several years of research, the district launched the preschool program last year. It had planned to start the kindergarten through fifth-grade program next year, but COVID-19 bumped up those plans.

"I’m really glad this is not our first go around with it," Eric Olson, superintendent of Monticello Schools, said. "I’m glad that we have done this with the preschool program and we know it can work and we know it’s very successful."

Several parks will be used around the city. The parks must have a building that will lock, offer heating options and bathrooms.

Students will be outside 70 to 90 percent of their school day, all year long, and are told to dress for the weather.
The district is partnering with a few companies for rain gear

"A lot of families have warm gear for winter in Minnesota, but not everybody has quality raingear," Olson said.

Students will still have access to computers and technology, and the learning standards remain the same. But Olson says how they’re delivered is what’s different.

"I’m so excited being able to do something new," he said. "We’re rethinking education is what we’re doing."

Olson says interest in the new outdoor classrooms is overwhelming. The district has room for 250 students, however, more have expressed interest.

"We won’t be able to deliver that this year, but in the future, if it goes well, which we are fully planning it will, we will grow that program," he said.

Olson said the district viewed nature-based preschool programs in Shakopee and Duluth but said he has learned from the Department of Education more school districts are looking at it as a viable option during the COVID-19 health pandemic.