Managing rainwater: An opportunity for learning during the pandemic

Published on: 
6 Nov 2020
Angeline Koch

The 2019–2020 Green School Scholars have been busy supporting their districts response to COVID-19. This fall, each of the five scholars are sharing how their work has prioritized sustainability as a core focus and how their successes have meant huge financial savings for their district, improved partnerships across the community, new assets at the schools and more.

Impervious surfaces or hardscapes such as asphalt, sidewalks and concrete playgrounds, characterize so many of our buildings and spaces that we no longer notice how it shapes the contours of our urban landscape. Excessive imperviousness leads to sewage overflows and basement backups, it degrades the quality of our rivers and lakes, and it costs money each year in economic losses and infrastructure repair, all of which deter investment and impede socioeconomic progress. The good news is that opportunities exist, especially at PreK–12 school sites, to replace crumbling asphalt and a sea of hardscape with beautiful, nature-inspired landscapes that reduce runoff, increase urban biodiversity, educate and inspire the community.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in Wisconsin is embracing this opportunity, and in collaboration with area partners, redeveloped five schoolyards in summer 2020 to holistically address the issue of imperviousness. Impervious materials prevent the absorption of water and instead cause rainwater to flow over the surface, picking up pollutants and toxicants, which end up in storm sewer drains, streets, surrounding porous surfaces, and local waterways such as Lake Michigan, negatively affecting water quality. The MPS schoolyard projects help reduce the impact of stormwater runoff, because they are centered around removing impervious asphalt from playgrounds and replacing it with green infrastructure elements like underground cisterns, porous play surfaces, rain gardens and bioswales.

Additionally, these projects create outdoor classrooms and learning spaces where curricular connections can be made to the new, natural learning landscapes. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the concept that access to outdoor learning and play significantly enhances learning outcomes and social-emotional well-being was widely accepted. Researchers have also found that outdoor spaces provide the opportunity for cooperative play and help children develop resilience skills as they navigate novel environments and encounter new challenges.

Since COVID-19, outdoor spaces have taken on even greater importance as sources of support for safe, socially distant play and educational opportunities for students to explore topics such as water and life cycles, ecosystems, economics, geometry, conservation and social studies. Outdoor classrooms can include natural green space or built shade structures, or simply a shady patch of grass under a tree. Seating and shade elements are common design features at MPS to accommodate longer class periods outdoors.

In response to the added importance of outdoor classroom space during the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee Public Schools is enhancing their planned schoolyard projects to include expanded seating; focused instruction areas where white or blackboards could be hung and used by teachers; new electrical functionality to outdoor shade structures for powering computers, lights and speakers; and biodiverse native plants and trees that lend themselves to robust and unique science lessons. Project managers and curriculum specialists also renewed their focus on educational and artistic signage throughout the schoolyard redevelopments to ensure applicability for multiple grade bands across several disciplines.  

In addition to impacting the design of the schoolyard redevelopment projects, COVID-19 also influenced the manner in which contractors built the projects. MPS developed a strategy to allow previously scheduled construction projects to proceed safely during the summer 2020 construction season. Contractors and consultants slated to manage projects during summer submitted their firms' coronavirus protocols before proceeding with on-site work. Protocols were required to be consistent with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At a minimum, masks were required within six feet of another person, and general contractors asked workers if they had any COVID-19 symptoms (headache, fever, recent travel).

Contractors also kept a daily log of each worker present at each work site, for contact tracing purposes. If an MPS employee at one of the sites tested positive for the virus, MPS notified the general contractor so that they could assess any exposure of their workers.  Likewise, contractors notified MPS of any positive cases within their workforce. MPS found that projects proceeding outside were easier to manage than inside projects, because workers were in the open and could distance appropriately. Projects that involved work inside a school were more challenging, but if contractors drafted and implemented a policy prior to starting the project, the project proceeded smoothly. Routine visits to the work site to ensure safety were easy, since project managers were frequently already on-site to check the progress of the project.

Despite the many challenges of planning, fundraising and constructing large-scale playground renovations during a pandemic, Milwaukee Public Schools was successful in creating five beautiful new outdoor classrooms that improve stormwater management while keeping workers safe. When schools reopen, these projects will be used by over 1,500 students. These classrooms not only help improve freshwater quality by preventing contaminated runoff from school properties entering local waterways, they also provide much-needed outdoor learning spaces and green space for the district’s urban students.

Learn more about COVID-19 guidance for schools