SURRY — Meet the new pandemic classroom, a yurt at the Surry Elementary School.
Yurts are wholeheartedly kid-approved.
“It’s maybe the best idea I ever had,” said Principal Fred Cole. “It’s entirely in response to the COVID-19 physical distancing requirements we have in the schools. We used COVID relief fund money to purchase it.”
“I confess I only had the idea for a yurt because I worked at the Bay School,” Cole said. “I was wondering how we could get some classroom space quickly. It’s impossible to get a good modular, but a yurt might go up quick. We were lucky to get it. To get a yurt right now, they’re talking months out. This company just had a cancellation.”
This being Maine, Cole ordered a snow/wind kit to accompany the yurt.
“This thing is pretty heavy-duty,” he said. It has two-by-four walls and two-by-six rafters on the ceiling.” It sits on a platform. The yurt has a projected life span of 20 to 25 years.
“In the world of schools, a 25-year-structure is pretty good,” Cole said. “If I were able to, I’d get a couple more.”
On Monday, the third grade moved from the school building to the yurt — saving the third-graders from having to do a hybrid form of school.
After the February break, there were third-grade students returning for in-person school.
“If we didn’t have the yurt, we would have had to go hybrid in third grade,” Cole said. That would have entailed two days of in-school instruction and three days of “remote learning.”
“In the yurt, they can still be seated at their own desks and be 6 feet apart,” the principal said. The yurt spans 30 feet across for 700-plus feet of total square footage, he said.
The yurt, which was built by the Pacific Yurt Co. of Oregon, cost $22,000. The company had an order cancel, so the school was able to buy that one. Local contractor Greg Weaver and Company installed the yurt. There is heat through a Rennai heater as well as electricity and Wi-Fi.
Cole estimated that all in the cost was about $50,000.
In comparison, a two-classroom modular unit runs about $130,000.
“The yurt was ready to move into maybe three weeks ago and we didn’t know what the pressing need would be,” Cole said. “We had a guess that at least one grade would be tipped into hybrid and would need the space. So, for a couple of weeks, we cycled some Spanish classes through there so all the kids could experience the space.”
Complying with Maine’s social distancing guidelines has required creativity for the school, which had a 25-student bump in enrollment last school year thanks in part to a larger than usual kindergarten class. Surry already has 14 pre-K students for the 2021-22 school year.
“Our classrooms are not a convenient rectangle or circle,” Cole said. “We have these just weird-shaped classrooms that make the space really inefficient.”
“We’ve done quite a bit of shifting around here,” he said. The first grade, because of its size, was split into two classes so that entailed turning the music room into a classroom.
The fifth-grade and eighth-grade students have a hybrid learning model similar to George Stevens Academy, so they alternate being in person two days a week and having “remote learning” three days a week.
“We’re giving preference to in-person [instruction] to the younger grades,” Cole said. Younger children aren’t able to get the same instruction remotely.
Those students with special learning needs or no Wi-Fi at their home attend school in person, the principal said.
The Surry Elementary School and The Bay School are not the only schools with yurts.
The Five Town District in Camden last August bought yurts and tents for the 2021 academic year, according to an NBC News report. Superintendent Maria Libby told the station she’s wanted for years to take advantage of the beautiful, natural resources in the district.