How one university is making patio classrooms a reality

Through smart planning and pitches, California Lutheran is giving a select group of students the opportunity to experience safer in-person instruction outdoors
By: | September 3, 2020
Photo courtesy of California Lutheran University

At first glance, the sprawling tents and strings of patio lights give the impression that California Lutheran University is setting up to host a few receptions.

But a closer look reveals some offbeat items under those tents: long tables and chairs, a green screen, a whiteboard, a large monitor, a mini dais and lots of wiring.

Indeed, the university has invited guests, but those chairs are not set up for a soiree, but rather for students who are some of the first in the nation to test the power of the outdoor classroom. In fact, Cal Lutheran is not just piloting a class or two outside. It is holding nine undergraduate courses on three patios this fall, both day and night, to provide a safer and quite unique in-person learning experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many colleges and universities across the country have explored or are trying to make the outdoor class work, few have been able to pull it off the way Cal Lutheran has. Blessed by impeccable weather nearly year-round and with the patio space to be able to host small-sized classes, it has been able to transform the right spaces into functioning instructional facilities.

It also helped that though its campus borders neighboring Los Angeles County in Thousand Oaks, it is located in Ventura County, which was amenable to the idea pitched by the university. Though the county specifically prohibited indoor lectures in its public health guidelines, it did not say anything about “outdoor” gatherings. That provided a loophole for Cal Lutheran to leap through to make it happen.

“We’re small enough that we can have conversations with them and get relatively immediate feedback,” says Ryan Van Ommeren, director of the emergency operations center and associate vice president for facilities planning and operations for Cal Lutheran, which enrolls just over 4,000 students. “We put our plan together and included outdoor classroom space, and then submitted it. The county came back and said that would work for them.”

So Van Ommeren and the team quickly got to work defining those the spaces, which opened to students earlier this week.

The inspiration

When Cal Lutheran received the initial guidelines on Aug. 7 effectively halting in-person teaching indoors, one of the groups most affected was its School of Business Management. Its dean, Gerhard Apfelthaler, noted that faculty was still interested in doing in-person instruction if possible. Most of Cal Lutheran’s classes are virtual.

“The selling point of that was that it was face to face instruction, with business professionals, including the cohort, including the faculty. So, he felt really strongly that we had to figure out something,” Van Ommeren said.

That something turned out to be instruction outdoors.

During discussions with its emergency team, which included scores of university stakeholders, it was clear that only a small percentage of classes could be held outside. Though Cal Lutheran sits on 225 acres, usable space was limited. At one point, it even considered parking lots but felt the aesthetic of asphalt wouldn’t be a hit with students.

“We do have a lot of parking space available, unlike any year ever,” Van Ommeren joked. “But the asphalt would not be a very pleasant environment.”

So, they turned to several patios that were adjacent to campus buildings. They provided a slew of features, including a key component – hardtop, brick paver surfaces that could be accessible for those with disabilities.

“Fortunately, we just finished a new science building that offered a nice patio space that had all the things we needed,” Van Ommeren said.

Building it out

One of the most notable features of the three patio classroom setups are the tents. Most college campuses utilize tents for a variety of purposes, including commencement ceremonies and other receptions or events. Cal Lutheran is not alone in using an outside vendor to help bring them in. For this project, they required tents to cover approximately 4,000 square feet, including almost 2,000 on its main patio. The cost: $500 per tent per month.

Before they were erected, there were other factors to consider, most importantly adhering to health and safety guidelines in the setup and determining whether instruction was even possible.

“Our provost’s office spent an enormous amount of time polling the faculty – ‘Can you do this? Here’s what’s allowed’ – so we developed capacity models on how big the tents have to be and such for social distancing,” Van Ommeren said.

The spaces, stakeholders determined, could each house a select number of students (28 in the big tent and 16 others in the two smaller patios) plus an instructor, which would allow for proper separation, enough tables and at least six-feet-apart of social distancing. Students would wear face coverings at all times as part of the conduct agreement.

Because of their proximity to buildings, each space also has easy access to bathrooms located either just inside a corridor of the building or external doors that lead to the patio. Only students and staff have access to those facilities.

Next came outfitting the rest of the space and bringing it to life. One of the key features was the plywood green screen that was custom built to be placed between the tent poles. Instead of trying to bring in ‘clumsy’ remote screens for instruction, educators would be able to point the board and use cameras for those coming in remotely. Van Ommeren offered a mini tour:

“That’s a whiteboard reader for the students that are not there and are Zooming in. There’s a monitor that’s in the space that sits next to the TV. And there’s a camera that sits on another little table, so if somebody’s taking the class [remotely] they can see the instructor too.”

Powering it up was one of the most challenging parts.

“Our goal was to get power to half the seats in these scenarios,” he says of the tables that now accommodate students charging laptops with power strips. “We took an internet cable out there to a wireless router in all cases to boost the internet enough. Then we had to figure out all that wiring. Some of it is a little jerry-rigged, with tying things off to a building and then draping it across a little corridor that now exists because of the tent structure.”

The result? Better than they had imagined.

“Everything can work [on the patios] that works in a regular classroom,” he says. “We have the internet. We have a 360 camera. Actually, it’s more technology than we would typically have.”

The future of the spaces

The vision of the outdoor classroom spaces and the pivot within a tight time frame by Cal Lutheran’s emergency team is astounding given all of the considerations at play.

The success of the finished product gives California Lutheran a chance to showcase its many benefits to those inside and outside of its community. Very few changes need to be made (except in the case of a rare weather event) and it should be comfortable for both students and educators during this tumultuous period.

“I would say the spaces are set, but it’s an interesting world right now,” Van Ommeren says. “We’re not going to flip the switch and then say, OK, we’re done with coronavirus. This is part of an overall strategy of having a healthy environment on campus. This is a way we think we can address it. In terms of sort of the big goal – how can we work with the university community to say health is our primary concern – this is one piece of how we think we can start bringing people back on campus.”

As for the future of the outdoor classrooms on campus, post-COVID, that is a little more cloudy than the pristine California weather.

“I don’t know if it has long long-term potential,” Van Ommeren says. “But how different are things going to be for how long in terms of people’s actual perception of healthy environments? People’s want for these spaces might last longer than we think. It might be with us for a while.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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