Chicopee Woods Elementary students and teachers have plenty of outdoor learning opportunities to look forward to in the coming year.
With a cut through a blue ribbon Wednesday morning, principal Jamie Hitzges unveiled a brand-new set of hiking trails and outdoor classrooms, which teachers will make use of for outdoor lessons, beginning this fall.
In addition to more than 3 miles of trails, Chicopee Woods is also installing eight shaded spaces behind the school for outdoor classes. Hitzges said he hopes teachers will use the new outdoor instruction areas “to the greatest extent possible.”
He said the trails and outdoor classrooms will help connect students to nature, while also keeping them as safe as possible from the potential transmission of COVID-19.
“The connection between nature and the academics and their wellness is really what we’re trying to balance,” he said. “All of that is wrapped into like ‘OK, we’ve got a pandemic, how do we take these lemons and really make lemonade?’ It’s really through that kind of thinking that we approached this.”
The new outdoor learning spaces were produced entirely by volunteer work and donations, with Home Depot, Mincey Marble, Garcia Landscaping and Lunsford Grading and Hauling all supplying funds and materials for the project.
Hitzges himself, along with many other volunteers, spent the last several weekends using hacksaws and machetes to clear and mark the paths, working through Saturdays and braving chiggers to make sure the outdoor areas would be ready for the start of the school year. Hintzges said lessons such as comparing deciduous and coniferous trees and teaching students about environmental awareness are potential scholarly benefits of the new teaching spaces.
“The science and everything else that goes along with it is really what I was hoping to get to from an academic standpoint,” he said.
The outdoor spaces will also be beneficial for Chicopee Woods students who have experienced childhood trauma such as domestic and sexual abuse and homelessness, according to counselor Rebecca Bouras.
“There’s research that shows that being in the woods reduces anxiety, reduces depression symptoms,” she said. “We want to just help the kids, and we thought that being in nature would help a lot of what our kids are going through. Our big thing is teaching them mindfulness.”
Bouras said Chicopee Woods has a large population of trauma-needs students, and that daily trail walking will help them reduce their anxiety and increase their happiness, self-esteem and self-awareness.
Hitzges said the extra time outside will also provide students with opportunities to take mask breaks, with the large outdoor areas giving them the capability to stay at least 6 feet apart from each other. He said that while the spread of COVID-19 is still a major concern coming into the start of the school year, spending as much time outside as possible should help cut down on cases at Chicopee Woods.
“I’m hoping that the offshoot is we have less prevalence of transmission,” Hitzges said. “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say that’s going to work for certain. It may not prove to be the panacea, yet at the same time, it may provide us, I’m hoping, a reduced transmission.”
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said in a statement that the district is “grateful for the support of our community volunteers and sponsors” in helping to complete projects like the new walking trails and outdoor classrooms at Chicopee Woods.
“When schools and communities pull together, work together, amazing things happen that benefit students,” Schofield said. “These outdoor trails and classroom spaces will engage our boys and girls and provide them with an opportunity to get fresh air, learn together and develop physically, emotionally and academically.”