SYDNEY – Children account for a large portion of new infections in Australia’s current COVID-19 outbreaks. This raised concerns about their safe return to school.
As schools in New South Wales and Victoria resume face-to-face learning, children under the age of 12 will be more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection since the vaccination of this age group n did not start in Australia (although they are less likely to get seriously ill). Face masks are also not mandatory for these students, but are mandatory for high school students in Victoria and NSW.
Therefore, physical distancing and the use of outdoor spaces for school activities are at the top of the list of recommendations to protect children from COVID-19.
Read more: From vaccination to ventilation: 5 ways to protect children from COVID when schools reopen
However, physical distancing, even outdoors, can hardly be practiced if the school is overcrowded. Overcrowding is common in Australian schools, which are welcoming more and more students. This problem has been recognized as a significant barrier to free activities for children, especially during recess and when they are on the move.
In New South Wales, for example, the open space required per student is 10 square meters and almost all schools meet this standard. While this seems to leave enough room for physical distancing, children may still feel that their schools are overcrowded and don’t provide enough room to play.
Read more: Let them play! Children need to be freed from play restrictions to develop
Why is this happening? Are children using school grounds in ways we don’t anticipate?
My doctoral study conducted at three Sydney public primary schools found that children’s use and perception of school environments differed from what adult designers intended. Children dislike and avoid some of the schoolyard spaces designed by adults.
Large parts of the school grounds, including the covered outdoor learning areas, are covered with poor quality asphalt on which children are not allowed to run and cannot sit comfortably.
The “do not run on concrete” rule limits intense physical activity for children to areas covered with grass or synthetic rubber. The problem is that these areas are often not large enough for the number of children who want to use them, resulting in overcrowding.
Adding to the problem is the “out of bounds” rule, which prohibits children from using areas out of sight of staff. These areas are often located on the edge of school grounds because staff tend to supervise children from the central parts of the school. Off-limit areas are underutilized but could provide additional space for children’s physical, social and dramatic play.
So how can school design and planning help overcome overcrowding that makes physical distancing difficult?
1. Provide quality material for floor surfaces
By replacing asphalt with better quality surfacing materials, children’s activities can be spread over more of the school grounds, reducing overcrowding. This will reduce the impact on children’s physical activity of the “do not run on concrete” rule.
In a recent study, we found that natural grass is the preferred surface for children for activities like running or gymnastics. It is not too hot in the sun, is not slippery and does not hurt in the event of a fall.
2. Increase opportunities to play in nature
In addition to the known child welfare benefits of outdoor games, natural settings tend to attract smaller groups, which can lead to less crowding. This contrasts with spaces such as sports fields where large numbers often play together.
My recent research shows that children prefer trees with large canopies, accessible branches, raised roots, and / or soft trunks because they provide sensory stimulation and opportunities for cooperative play.
Read more: Children learn science in nature by playing long before they arrive in classrooms and laboratories
3. Recognize the value of neglected areas
Off-school areas are often overlooked based on the questionable assumption of their low value for children’s play. Better use of these spaces can disperse children throughout the school area and improve their opportunities to play safely.
Children may also find these spaces quiet and less crowded as they are usually isolated and partially separated from sanctioned areas. Less noisy spaces make it easier for children to talk to each other, which is an important part of their sociodramatic play.
4. Create separate zones
School facilities can be designed to establish separate zones that provide appropriate isolated spaces for various groups or cohorts of students to avoid overcrowding. A cohort is a separate group that stays together throughout the school day for face-to-face learning, with little or no contact between groups.
The ‘cohort’, also known as the ‘podding’, allows for more efficient contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID-19 test result. Targeted testing, quarantine and isolation can be applied to a single cohort / group rather than school-wide closures when an individual or group tests positive.
5. Use nearby community / public spaces
Schools can locate the additional space they need on nearby community / public open spaces when the local council and the Ministry of Education reach a joint use agreement. The safe use of these sites by children depends on:
- the quality of these facilities
- their location in the neighborhood
- easy to walk to and from school
- access during school hours.
Sharing neighborhood facilities can help meet children’s need for access to broader recreational resources. It also strengthens the social bond between schools and their communities.
Overcrowding in Australian schools is not a new problem but could be a barrier to safe face-to-face education at a time when it is desperately needed. Current concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in schools may prompt an overhaul of policies and institutions to address this long-standing problem of overcrowding. Children and school communities should be involved in the early stages of school design and planning to tap into their unique ideas about the effectiveness of educational environments.
Read more: In the debates on opening schools, we neglect an important voice: that of our children
Fatemeh Aminpour, Associate Lecturer, School of the Built Environment, UNSW
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.