A kindergarten class' "extended field trip" was shut down by state and local officials this week over health and safety concerns, after they discovered students were attending school outside or in a tent.
Since Jan. 8, 5- and 6-year-old students from Juniper Ridge Community School have spent every day at an undeveloped 28-acre plot of land the school recently purchased to construct a new facility.
Children attended class either outdoors or in a roughly 10-foot-by-20-foot windowless tent, which included a floor constructed of wooden pallets, rugs and carpet scraps and was heated with a wood stove. Officials from the charter school rented a porta potty, which was located next to a wood chipper near the tent, and also put up swings and other play equipment.
Juniper Ridge Administrative Director Patrick Ebel said parents were aware of and had approved of the "extended field trips," and were dropping off students at the property every morning.
"A lot of our classes, especially our younger class, have routinely been doing field trips to areas like Connected Lakes so kids can play out in the woods and the trees. We have actually just started doing that on our new property," Ebel said.
The charter school's experiential philosophy of education includes a mission "to inspire children to participate in their own education, by cultivating compassion and caring for themselves, each other, and the natural world," according to their website.
Ebel said the tent "was never meant to be a classroom or a place where kids would spend extended time."
"If it started raining or something like that, we thought we would put a shelter up," Ebel said.
Cheri Taylor, a school district executive director who oversees charter schools, said she learned about the trips after a neighbor called the school district Tuesday afternoon. Taylor said she did not believe the neighbor's report that children were going to school in a tent until she drove to the site, which is located behind a subdivision near First Street and Patterson Road.
"I was honestly just concerned about the safety of the kids," Taylor said. "I love the idea of outdoor education, but we still have a responsibility to ensure that wherever, whether it's in a classroom in a building or out in the open, that it's safe."
Taylor and Petie Pope, the school district's environmental health and safety manager, returned to the location Wednesday morning.
"I'm the one who came in and said, this is an immediate cease and desist," Pope said. "My decision was based solely on health and safety and the immediate fire hazard that this tent could burn down while kids were in it or in a close location."
Pope called a school bus to transport the students back to Juniper Ridge school. Officials from Mesa County Public Health and the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control visited the location Thursday and determined it was unsafe to occupy.
Monique Mull, a health department manager who oversees schools, said she has never encountered a situation like this.
Her concerns include no electricity, no running water, no sewer, broken wood pallets and broken glass in the immediate area and a gas-powered wood chipper near the porta potty.
"We did not receive a plan review application for this set-up," Mull said, which is required of all school facilities. "My understanding is this was a kindergarten class. This was not an outing, this was where class was being held. Field trips are one thing. This was not a field trip."
Ebel said the school did not receive any complaints from parents about the trips or about children spending all day outside in January, and he hopes the field trips will start again — without the tent — in the next few months.
"We didn't ever feel the kids were in any danger, (and) we had no concerns from parents at all," he said.
"As a matter of fact, I have a lot of kindergarten parents who are not very happy at all right now because they want their kids out there playing," he continued.