The nine figures sat silently on camping chairs and blankets in Dolores Park, shaded by a big tree. They’re wired in, laptops open and headphones on, rapidly typing while keeping an eye on their video calls and packed calendars.
A chihuahua ambles between them, sniffing shoes and nudging legs, to figure out what they’re up to. Building the next “Uber for X,” perhaps? No, they’re public school kids trying to pass math.
And when they’ve figured out one problem, they toss their laptops down and run to the swings, whooping with laughter. After a few minutes, it’s back to math.
For five Latino families, this informal outdoor school in the park has become the answer to distance learning and the mental-health problems and loneliness that it triggered in their kids. Since the new year, the outdoor sessions — masked, with social distance — have run three days a week.
“After two weeks, they were again happy and laughing,” said Dheyanira Calahorrano, who organized the group. “They are together, they are seeing each other, they are playing, they are running.”
Amadeo Soto-Knight, 10, said with confidence (and disappointment) that he’s been learning online for “two and a half years.” At least the last year has felt like that. Being inside all day made him sad, though he couldn’t quite place why. But he knows why he likes school better in the park. “It’s been a lot funner,” he says.
Moreover, his grades have improved, and he’s seeing friends his age.
Calahorrano first tried advocacy to get her child, Amaru, back in school. Before the holiday winter surge, she helped collect 70 signatures from families in the Mission who wanted to return to the classroom. Next came a letter from Calahorrano and others in her learning pod imploring the district to reopen. Nothing worked.
The final straw came when her son, a smart kid, called her during work: “‘Mom, my grades are trash, I’m trash,’ he said,” Calahorrano recalled. “So that was it. This was not working. I could not let [school] crash my kid like that.”
So she took matters into her own hands. She had seen the potential of outdoor learning when her son attended once-a-week music classes over the summer. That, Calahorrano decided, was the answer. She gathered a group of families, raised money for folding chairs and blankets by selling tamales, and launched the first outdoor-learning session in early January.
“New year, new school, new life,” she said.
Is it safe? Calahorrano points to their record: seven weeks of outdoor learning without any Covid-19 cases.
She also motioned to the Children’s Day School, an imposing red-brick private school located next to Dolores Park. She regularly sees groups of 20 children leaving the school and playing together on the field.
“The wealthy kids that can pay $30,000 a year are allowed to be outside, playing with friends,” she said. But, she adds, if “socializing has become a privilege,” it’s also clear that she and other parents are unwilling to accept that notion.
The other parents agreed: Socializing is key to their children’s health, and if it takes hosting these outdoor learning sessions, so be it.
Rocio Bautista’s son became anxious and depressed as the months of online learning dragged on. But even then, he was a responsible student, present for attendance and turning in his homework on time. But when their home internet fails, it can reduce him to tears.
Now that he’s outdoors with his friends, she said, he’s doing a lot better. He even has a better internet connection from the park. On Tuesday night, Bautista’s son started to cook snacks at 10 p.m. because he knew he was coming to the park on Wednesday, and he wanted something to share with his friends.
The children also said they are happier. “It just felt like I was stuck not doing anything,” said Amaru Duran, 11. “I was just sitting in my chair in my room, not doing anything.”
He’s doing better now, he said. He gets to see his friends.
Outdoor learning benefits the parents as well, giving them more time to focus on things other than their children’s online education. And for Olga Reyes, who has been out of work, supervising the young students has become a job. The other moms chip in to pay her for watching over the children at the park.
All the parents said they want the schools to reopen, but they aren’t optimistic it will happen in the near future. On Feb. 7, the union and the school district reached a tentative agreement to reopen, depending on how prevalent Covid is in the city and whether teachers are vaccinated. But the Board of Education delayed a vote on the deal Tuesday night in favor of a closed-door session to discuss a legal issue.
For now, the current setup is working for the parents and their children — maybe even better than going back to school would, now that the kids can be outside instead of cooped up in a classroom, Calahoraano said. She hopes other families will consider taking similar measures.
“The kids finally have a bit of stability after months of chaos,” Reyes said in Spanish, with a cheerful yellow visor shielding her face from the midday sun. Nearby, the kids gathered at a park bench for lunch, chihuahua in tow.
Afterward, they’ll play in the wet grass until their parents come to take them home.