Aspen Middle School class goes virtual for outdoor education; ExEd postponed to spring

Pajamas, onesies and lightsabers aren’t usually the norm for Aspen Middle School’s Outdoor Education programming, but the idea of normal has changed a lot in recent weeks. Kristen Zodrow, who teaches sixth grade at AMS and helps lead one of the annual hut trips, went virtual with her group last week after their real trip was canceled.

“They were ready, except because of weather and now COVID, this experience, like so many others, got ripped out from under them,” Zodrow said. “They did 95% of their outdoor ed experience, they just didn’t get the icing on the cake right now, which would be going to that hut and being together in the wilderness for three days.”

The middle school’s Outdoor Education program, which started with the eighth graders, celebrated its 50th anniversary during the 2017-18 school year. The current sixth-grade program, which sends the students to the Shrine Mountain huts off Vail Pass each winter, has been going on for about three decades.

While three of the five classes were able to complete their hut trips — they rotate each week — both Zodrow’s and Mark Munger’s classes weren’t as lucky. Their trips were originally postponed because of weather — Munger’s group had been slated to leave the morning of an intense snow squall that briefly shut down Vail Pass — and were ultimately canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic that closed down the schools.

“We were pretty bummed when we couldn’t go because of the weather. Of course, we had no inkling of what was to come,” Munger said. “I know the kids were pretty bummed.”

Also canceled this spring was the seventh grade’s Outdoor Education trip, which includes rafting on the Colorado River. The fifth- and eighth-grade programs both occur in the fall, alongside the high school’s Experiential Education programming.

Still, Zodrow tried to make the most of it with her sixth-grade class, hosting a virtual hut trip via Google Hangouts. The students dressed up mostly in costume and toured each other’s bedrooms and did a little bit of show and tell, a way to bring them together in a fun way.

While the hut trips have plenty of outdoor learning inherently built in, the main part is the camaraderie the students build together, something the novel coronavirus has taken away from nearly everyone over the past few months.

“This has been technological overdosing for them, and a lot of them don’t want to be at a computer or on a phone,” Zodrow said. “I put a lot of pictures up from previous years and we are walking through certain experiences, but we’re doing it virtually. They will be in their own homes, but we will just act like we’re all together.”

Munger said next year’s Outdoor Education programs remain in limbo. They have already reserved the huts for next spring, but the fall trips could be moved. This could be tricky for the eighth graders, as they typically backpack to Marble, something that would be nearly impossible during the spring with snowmelt.

Aspen High School principal Tharyn Mulberry confirmed Monday that the ExEd programs in the fall have already been pushed back to spring 2021.

“There were too many unknowns,” Mulberry said, noting that many of the AHS trips leave the state and it’s unknown whether that will be allowed by the fall. “Either way, it’s just easier to kick it out to the next part. And they are expecting a resurgence (in coronavirus cases) around that time, so we decided to move it.”