Dropping off my youngest child in late August to join the in-person but heavily-masked freshman experience at Trinity University, I felt a wave of disappointment with the realization the school was not fully open. I hold a similar concern for what’s happening at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which has gone virtual for its first three weeks. 

Of course, we need to keep students and staff safe, but universities have another option — an option that’s hidden, as they say, in plain sight: their campuses. Both Trinity and UTSA (and the rest of the colleges in San Antonio) have lush campuses perfect for outdoor learning.

Now, before you tell me how that’s utterly impossible in the Texas heat, I want you to know that I have just finished teaching a year of college courses in blistering heat and in standing snow. And I’m here to tell you that it can be done.

For starters, look at the temperatures in the Alamo City. Even on a 100-degree day, the mercury typically doesn’t hit that level until late in the afternoon. By contrast, the prime times for college classes are the morning hours when temperatures may be in the 80s or low 90s. Moreover, when you’re learning outside, casual dress and icy beverages are welcomed.

And college classes can be short. In the tutorial or seminar system practiced at Oxford and Cambridge, students are expected to read the material in advance of each class. This system is also gaining wide acceptance in K-12 schools in the U.S., where it’s called the “flipped classroom.” That means that students are given the “lectures” in advance via videos, podcasts, screencasts, and/or readings. These bits of media offer students time to absorb the material on their own schedules and at their own pace. They can rewatch or relisten for better comprehension.

The benefits of the flipped classroom include a more student-centered experience, but their biggest benefit seems to be the way they make better use of classroom time. This system moves the classroom time away from long lectures and creates space for more dynamic things like Socratic Q&A sessions, vibrant discussions, team workshops, and even guest speakers. This system also allows class time to be shorter, something particularly useful when the weather isn’t perfect.

Students are not just brains on sticks, as Columbus State University professor Susan Hrach argues in her new book Minding Bodies. She reminds us that student bodies need to move for their mental and physical health and that trapping students behind desks is awful. 

So is trapping them behind masks, which is what schools like Trinity are doing.

Last year at James Madison University in Virginia, where I was teaching journalism, I might occasionally stand in front of an indoor classroom — but behind a mask and Plexiglas partition. Now I happen to have the vocal diaphragm and stage presence to project my voice through a mask, but I can’t tell you how many times I had to ask, “Who was that who just made that great comment?” Masks muffle voices and tend to make the quiet students even quieter, and that robs them of educational opportunity. 

At the same time that I taught outdoors, I also streamed my classes to those students who — because of work, family, or illness — chose to attend remotely. The in-person students ended up averaging a full letter grade higher and peppered the course evaluations with gratitude for the outdoor experience.

Science says that person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 outdoors is rare. In that spirit, we have seen restaurants all over the country move outside. Yet the San Antonio colleges haven’t done anything as bold as Houston’s Rice University, which erected tents for outdoor learning last year.

Unlike K-12 schools which pride themselves on student-centered learning, colleges incentivize scholarship and generally let faculty configure their courses the way they want. And that means the inertia of continuing to lecture, albeit on Zoom or under a mask.

Hopefully, UTSA’s decision to start the semester virtually will whet the students’ appetite for in-person instruction after a year of cabin fever and Zoom burn-out. As for Trinity, there are a few professors making a go of outdoor classes, and I laud them.

Outdoor learning may not work for all classes in all weather. But in San Antonio, where pleasant days abound, it can be a welcome tool for delivering some educational and emotional salve.

Hawes Spencer

Hawes Spencer is a Virginia-based author, journalist, and 1988 graduate of Trinity University.