Reef-Sunset Unified School District in Avenal hopes to breathe new life into school activities by providing outdoor learning opportunities to students and staff through the installation of solar panels on outdoor dining structures.
After two years of online learning, the district is eager to provide an avenue for outdoor learning after the pandemic brought forth a high increase in mental health issues among students and staff.
“The pandemic has been incredibly troubling for individuals and society as a whole,” said Pat Sánchez, Reef-Sunset’s superintendent. “We have seen an increase in mental health needs for both our students and staff members, meanwhile, our students are struggling to keep learning through this trying time.”
Outdoor Learning Can Improve the Spirits of Students
These outdoor learning areas are one component of Reef-Sunset’s infrastructure modernization program. The goal is to improve students’ overall physical health, as well as their mental, social and behavioral health.
“Our hope for these improvements is to create a safe and peaceful learning environment that helps ease some of the stress and anxiety students may be experiencing, as well as provide the best type of ventilation: outside air,” said Sanchez. “The goal is not only that they further excel in their studies but that they also find more joy in their day-to-day life at school and beyond.”
A study by the American Institutes for Research states that outdoor learning helps improve a student’s academic performance with 27% higher test scores.
This data also demonstrated that students thrive when they receive instruction outside. Spending time outdoors helps students build higher self-esteem, resolve conflicts and relationships with their peers, and improve their motivation, behavior, and problem-solving abilities.
Additionally, the National Children’s Bureau reports that nature and greenery are proven to reduce stress among children while improving overall wellness.
Solar Panels to the Rescue
Apart from helping students, the infrastructure project is expected to save the district more than $10.8 million in utility costs across the lifetime of the solar panels. The entire program costs about $7.6 million that the district primarily funded with federal COVID-relief dollars and utility funding.
“On top of enhancing all facets of student health, this infrastructure revitalization program is going to provide the district with substantial financial and environmental savings in the long run,” said Reef-Sunset USD Board Trustee Lupe Chavez.
With the help of Climatec — a company that focuses on building automation systems — the district will update HVAC, LED lighting, and building control technologies. The modernization program is expected to be done by spring 2023.
“This is an incredible feat for Reef-Sunset in and of itself,” said Chavez. “It’s even more incredible considering the district is making it possible with a creative and responsible use of one-time federal funds that will also provide long-term general fund relief.”
COVID-19 Negatively Impacts Adolescent Mental Health
District officials say they were driven to provide more outdoor learning opportunities because students are struggling to manage stress and anxiety.
A team of pediatric physicians and doctors has declared mental health to be a national emergency among young children and teens after witnessing soaring rates of mental health challenges brought on by pandemic stress.
Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide had been rising steadily between 2010 and 2020. However, the pandemic intensified the crisis, and health officials say they have witnessed dramatic increases in emergency department visits for mental health challenges, including suspected suicide attempts.
In addition, more than 140,000 children in the United States have lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver during the pandemic. Youth of color have been impacted the most.
The Reef-Sunset School District serves more than 2,660 students, 97.2% of whom are Hispanic/Latino.