For social distancing, Eckerd College takes classes outside

The bird’s-eye view of the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg isn’t about the buildings; it’s about the spaces in between. 

“For Environmental Biology, we’ll be looking at the birds,” explained professor Beth Forys. 

But what was strictly for the birds and biology is now for math and history as well. All of those classes will move outdoors.

“I want every faculty to feel comfortable no matter what their subject is with teaching outside,” continued Forys.

For more than 25 years, Forys has worked outdoors, studying seabirds and teaching many of her classes outside. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she had a natural answer.

“I thought to myself, wow, if we come back, I think I’m going to try to teach everything outside because the viral transmission rate is so much lower. I told a bunch of people that and they said, that’s a great idea.”

Administrators ask her to help identify and coordinate outdoor teaching locations across Eckerd’s 188-acre campus on the bay in St. Petersburg. 

“On our campus, we found about 50 sites that have shade. All but one, on the tip by the water, has good wifi,” said Forys. 

She developed an app that faculty can use to reserve outdoor spaces. It tells them whether it’s grass or concrete, wheelchair accessibility, even the signal strength of the wifi.

Most students haven’t arrived, but the early reviews are in. “We’re in St. Pete, it’s sunny and warm all year, we can be outside,” said Grayson Panter, a junior from Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

“I think we’re doing our best to make a positive outcome of it and continue our learning. It’s everything,” offered Sofi Lenzi, a junior from Massachusetts.

Forys knows there will be rain, heat, and bugs, but they all come with the outdoors. 

“I think, for a lot of people, this is an option that would work.”

Teachers can opt to hold indoor classes. Class sizes are small, so social distancing can be achieved, Forys says. But she expects many of her colleagues to join her in the great outdoors. 

Classes begin at Eckerd August 31.