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Susan Eschbach, principal of Beverly J. Martin Elementary School.

As Ithaca City schools prepared to welcome back in-person students last fall, the district partnered with the Ithaca Children’s Garden to install outdoor learning spaces at each of the eight elementary schools in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19; creating the outdoor spaces was a crucial step toward reopening.

However, in order for teachers to utilize these resources year-round, students need to be able to access appropriate outdoor gear. The Parent-Teacher Associations across all the ICSD elementary schools came together to provide their students with outdoor gear to wear in a learning environment that is safer from COVID-19 exposure than the traditional classroom. 

Susan Eschbach, principal of Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, considers the gear an investment in both minimizing the spread of COVID-19, and the district’s commitment to infiltrate outdoor education.

“We needed to be out more than we already were,” Eschbach said. “Many of us are proponents of outdoor education anyway, but [the pandemic] was an added push, so the timing was right for the PTAs to come together and create an equitable opportunity.”  

Each of the eight PTAs formed a project committee with families and caregivers of ICSD elementary students. Since launching the Ithaca Elementary Outdoor Gear Project in October 2020, the committee has accomplished its short-term goal to outfit all 1,200 elementary students who are attending school in person. 

Committee co-chair Jennifer Lyons said that the volunteers heavily contributed to completing phase one of the project by fundraising, ordering gear and making deliveries.   

“We asked each principal to tell us what they urgently needed to get the kids who are back in person outside,” Lyons said. “And we were able to distribute all of those boots, snow pants, mittens and, in some cases, rain gear.”

As of January 2021, the committee raised over $60,000 with support from the project’s fiscal sponsor — the Ithaca Public Education Initiative. Donations from local businesses and organizations, community members and the ICSD PTAs themselves have also helped fund the first half of the project.

Eschbach said the sets of gear that have been issued to every in-person student are already being worn. 

“We had our class, as recently as Friday, walk to [Beechtree Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing] to make snow people outdoors for the residents to see out the windows,” she said.

Eschbach said having this gear in the classrooms puts less restraints on teachers when planning outdoor lessons.

“Regardless of what kind of play, instruction or lesson, the project allows tremendous flexibility in the learning environments,” Eschbach said.

As the committee moves into the second half of the project, volunteers have continued fundraising toward the $140,000 total cost needed to purchase gear for the remaining 1,100 remote ICSD elementary students. 

“The second phase that we'll work to complete between now and the end of the school year is to make sure we get everything the principals need for when the rest of the students come back in the fall,” Lyons said.

Instead of eight separate fundraisers, Lyons explained that the project became a collaboration among all ICSD elementary school PTAs because socioeconomic status across the district varies considerably.

“There's such a wide range of access to winter gear across the district,” Lyons said. "Meaning, some schools don't have the same kind of fundraising power from the PTA or the same kinds of resources as the others.”

According to the Ithaca Elementary Outdoor Gear Project webpage, 25% of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch at some ICSD elementary schools, while at others, over 70% of students qualify. Since the rates at Enfield and Beverly J. Martin exceed 40%, both schools participate in theCommunity Eligibility Provision, which allows the highest-need schools in the nation to serve free school meals to all students.

“Anytime families might contribute to their children's classroom — for supplies, snacks, field trips — there's going to be an inequity across the schools, because our demographics across the schools are pretty variable,” Eschbach said. “Because of pretty serious issues of equity, the likelihood of some schools getting more or better-quality supplies and other schools struggling to do so, just didn't seem right in the face of anything, but certainly in the face of a pandemic.”

Eschbach and Lyons agree that the PTAs and volunteers from every ICSD elementary school are committed to working together and sharing resources in order to offer outdoor education to all students.

At a time when students have faced substantial barriers and changes to education, the Ithaca Elementary Outdoor Gear Project ensures that students are always prepared to learn outside in a safe environment.

“One of the goals has been to make sure that every kid has the gear they need and that the teachers have extra gear in their classrooms so that they can always go outside and play — something that's so important in a pandemic, but also in a regular year for elementary kids especially,” Lyons said.   

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