When Synapse School realized they’d need to revamp their operations to reopen safely for the 2020-21 school year, they developed a comprehensive plan. Using outdoor classroom structures from WeatherPort® Shelter Systems was a major cause of its success.
Synapse School: Education Done Differently
Synapse School is a private elementary and middle school located in Menlo Park, California that takes an innovative approach to education.
Rooted in social-emotional learning (SEL), Synapse’s curriculum is largely project-based and involves no grades. Instead, students engage in experiential learning through hands-on, real-world activities designed to develop core academic and social skills.
Even Synapse’s campus is unique: Located in a business park, the school is made up of four former business buildings, including a warehouse that houses their “makerspace.” Artificial turf gives the students an ideal outdoor play area.
Synapse School’s Approach to COVID-19
When the shelter-in-place order took effect in California last spring, Synapse’s Head of School Jim Eagen quickly mobilized and motivated a number of different committees to determine how to ensure a safe reopening come August 1st, the start of their school year.
Their reopening plan, which was a summer-long endeavor, ended up focusing on creating outdoor classrooms and enforcing social distancing, hygiene best practices, and weekly testing.
“It was obvious early on that it was better to be outside,” explained Bob Bear, Synapse’s Chief Operations Officer (COO). “We wanted to create as many outside spaces and outside classes as possible.”
In addition to offering better airflow, which decreases the chance of COVID-19 transmission, outdoor classrooms could be spaced out in the surrounding parking lots and outdoor spaces to help keep groups apart. Staff and students were separated into different cohorts that don’t mix to reduce the number of individuals people come into contact with.
Synapse is also allowing families to choose between distance and in-person learning. Those who choose to attend class in person are split into two blocks, with one block attending school in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Everything is thoroughly cleaned after each block leaves for the day, and groups don’t share supplies.
The school partnered with Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital to provide weekly COVID-19 testing. Testing takes place every Thursday, and results are in by Saturday. If anyone tests positive, their entire cohort is quarantined according to county and health standards, after which everyone in the cohort is tested again.
[Related: Temporary Structures to Help Reopen Schools]
Finding the Right Outdoor Classroom Structures
Outdoor classrooms have been a common solution for schools wanting to convene safely during COVID-19, but deciding what these classrooms will look like can be an initial hurdle for schools.
Luckily for Synapse School, this choice was easy, since they were already developing the perfect structure for a different purpose.
About a year ago, Bear began his search for outdoor shade shelters to protect students on the playground from the strong California sun, as well as wind and rain.
Quality was a primary concern for Bear: “It needed to be safe,” he explained. “I initially thought about putting up some of the really simple shade structures you see at softball games, but I didn’t want to have to worry about them blowing over.”
He ultimately determined that engineered fabric structures would be a high-quality and durable alternative.
A little research brought WeatherPort to Bear’s attention, and he soon realized that a local swim school had been happily using WeatherPort structures for a number of years. Bear liked that WeatherPort structures were relocatable and didn’t require interior posts, which wasn’t the case with another manufacturer he was considering. He also liked that they were US-made and could be custom-designed with specific colors and branding.
Bear ended up ordering two playground shelters from WeatherPort. Fast-forward one year to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he knew just the right manufacturer for the outdoor classrooms he needed.
[Related: Outdoor Facilities for Growing Schools]
The Design Process
Synapse School worked closely with WeatherPort’s building specialists to custom-design the perfect structures for their outdoor classrooms.
The size of the structures was particularly crucial: The classrooms needed to fit roughly 10 to 12 students spaced 6 to 7 feet apart for social distancing. Bear also decided not to include side panels in the design structure to promote airflow.
WeatherPort’s building specialists ensured that Synapse’s classroom structures were designed to meet the specific wind loads in Menlo Park, and they worked with Bear to determine optimal installation methods and layout for their campus.
When it came to the aesthetics, Synapse decided to work with an interior designer to choose a color for the structures and logos that would complement their very colorful school buildings. WeatherPort was happy to be able to accommodate their specific design requests.
“I have nothing but good things to say about everyone I worked with at WeatherPort,” said Bear when looking back at the design process. “The sales people were great, and so were the engineers. Folks were very responsive too.”
Installing Outdoor Classroom Structures
Synapse ended up ordering six outdoor classroom structures and one structure to be used as an outdoor office and testing facility. About six weeks later, the structures arrived at Synapse’s campus and were ready to be installed.
First, Bear had artificial turf installed in the parking lots surrounding the school buildings to create a comfortable foundation for the structures. Then he worked with a general contractor to set up the outdoor classrooms and office space.
Bear says that setup happened quickly because WeatherPort sent directions ahead of time, including the designs, cut sheets, and anchorage specifications. He estimates that it took four to five days to get all seven structures up.
Once the structures were in place, electricians ran power out to all of them and put in new outdoor wireless access points to ensure strong Wi-Fi. Then Synapse furnished the structures with small single-person tables and movable whiteboards — pieces that could easily be moved around to promote social distancing and also to accommodate for the sun’s movement throughout the day.
Outdoor Learning: The New Normal for Synapse School
Synapse School has now successfully held classes outdoors for three months, with only one confirmed case of COVID-19. Thanks to their weekly testing, they were able to quarantine the affected class and get everything back to normal within two weeks.
Happy with the success of their plan for safely reopening the school during COVID, Synapse School nevertheless recognizes that some schools have it harder than others. “We’re very fortunate,” explained Bear. “We’re a private school, so we have resources.”
Now Synapse is trying to share their newfound insights with other schools: “We’re taking all that we’ve learned, and we’re working with public schools to help them out.” Bear explained that their reason for partnering with Stanford wasn’t only to implement a testing program on their campus, but to find a program that could be viable for schools across the board.
Another piece of information that Bear is sharing with other schools: the manufacturer of their outdoor classroom structures.
“I’ve had half a dozen heads of schools call and ask about our WeatherPort structures,” says Bear. His answer: “I tell them it’s a great product.”
Bear explained that the two playground structures they ordered a year ago are still in great shape and that he’s equally happy with the new outdoor classroom structures. “You’re never going to be disappointed when you buy a quality product,” was his simple explanation.
When asked what they’ll do with their outdoor classroom structures once things return to normal, Bear said that they’re “not planning on normal for at least another whole school year.”
“It’s a really neat environment to have kids working outside. Plus, we need shade structures anyway,” he went on. “I can move these things if I need to. So I don’t see any changes. I might actually order a couple more structures in the future.”