For the last 25 years, the Outdoor Academy has been a semester school located on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, providing experiential education and community life focused on four cornerstones: intellect, environment, community and craft.
The Academy serves as an escape from technology and ordinary life, but this year, it does more. In the midst of a pandemic, it has been a refuge from online school for both students and teachers. The school has offered safe, in-person learning and teaching, along with the ability to live closely with other teens for a semester.
Last year, the school’s 50th semester was cut short as students went on spring break right as Covid-19 became a serious issue, preventing them from returning and ending their semester halfway through. However, the school was not going to let the pandemic prevent another semester from happening. With 29 students taking Covid-19 tests and embarking on a socially-distanced backpacking trek, the group formed a virus-free bubble in August 2020, the start of last semester.
The students and a few faculty members lived without the threat of the virus within the group. Of course, this is not possible for most schools, but because of Outdoor Academy’s small class size, it became a reality. To maintain the bubble, students were not allowed to return home for Thanksgiving break and there were no other opportunities to see family in-person for three and a half months.
As an alternative to the break and opportunity to go home, the students had zoom calls periodically throughout the semester to stay connected to family. When students from the last semester were asked if not being able to see their parents or return home took away from their experience, a large majority responded that it had not. Some even specifically went on to say that the distance made the experience more meaningful.
However, Outdoor Academy is not only a unique opportunity for students but also the teachers. The teachers come from many backgrounds, from public school to other semester schools, but all have one thing in common: their gratitude for the teaching environment at the academy, especially amid a pandemic.
I attended last semester and it was an amazing experience. Online school has proven to be very hard for me, and I loved having the opportunity to learn in-person and in small classes. I felt a lot of gratitude for the experience. In my opinion, the contrast between online or masked in-person learning within large class sizes and in-person and outdoor education within a small class size amplified the importance of how and where I learn. This alternative to virtual learning pushed me to apply myself more in my classes and to immerse myself in every aspect of the school.