NOLS is among the world’s biggest outdoor schools. Its headquarters are in the US; it has its India operations in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand. For years, practices evolved at NOLS have served as a benchmark for the outdoor industry especially the segment therein focused on outdoor education.
When the world slipped into the grip of COVID-19 in early 2020 (the disease was first reported in late 2019) and normal human life got disrupted, NOLS too was impacted. But characteristic of it, the school worked on new, safe means to conduct its courses and by early 2021 was back to operating many of its outdoor programs in the US.
N. Ravi Kumar, Director, NOLS India is currently in the US, working outdoor programs and first aid courses there. He spared time to answer a few questions on NOLS, NOLS India and outdoor programs in the midst of a pandemic. The exchange was via email.
Broadly speaking, how has the pandemic affected the operations of NOLS globally?
The impact has been significant. In spring 2020, NOLS was forced to shut down the following locations abruptly: India, Tanzania, Patagonia, Scandinavia, Mexico and all its locations in the US.
The school had to let go of a large portion of employees and retain only essential workforce to help with restart when things are under control.
When did operations resume and in which all geographies?
Spring 2020 everything was shut. In the fall of 2020, we did a few courses with COVID protocols in place and by spring 2021 we had most of our operations in the US going with limited course offerings. The response was very good. All courses were full in no time and we have had the least number of evacuations in the school’s history as everyone wanted to be out in the woods after a year of staying indoors.
This summer we had enrolment beyond what we could accommodate and had to cut back significantly due to staff shortage.
NOLS uses the expedition model to teach its courses. How has the structure of NOLS expeditions changed to handle the precautions and protocols required in these times of COVID-19? In one of our conversations, you briefly touched upon a multi-phased model that is being used. Can you give us an overview of this model?
Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and variants are an evolving hazard. The risk of contracting the illness, COVID-19, on NOLS field courses cannot be eliminated. But we have identified mitigation strategies based on guidance by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reduce that risk, which can be used in concert with testing and vaccines. With those strategies in place, we believe the risk can be managed appropriately.
The cornerstones on which, we have based our approach include informed consent, reducing the risk of virus transmission, hygiene with emphasis on hand washing or sanitizing to prevent flu-like illness and monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19.
NOLS has put in place COVID-19 risk management strategies for each of the outdoor activities it is associated with spanning land and water.
Our field practices are divided into phases depending on the documented vaccination status of course members. A course starting in Phase 1 will follow the recommended practices of that phase for the first ten days of the course. After ten days, if there are no significant breaches and if no one becomes symptomatic, we can reasonably assume that the risk of COVID-19 transmission within the group is reduced and the group can move to Phase 2. A course that is fully vaccinated can start the course in Phase 2, which is normal course operating routines with continued attention to hygiene. This is the broad paradigm.
Besides detailed protocols on hygiene, daily health checks, physical distancing, masking and cooking, the first phase features a few other key elements. For instance, in Phase 1, the tents used are of the sort that are roomier and capable of better ventilation. Models like the Mega Mid are finding increased use in the quest to have less confined, better ventilated shelters. Tarps, flies – they are staging a comeback. To provide adequate physical distancing, the number of persons per tent is kept low in Phase 1. Groups are also encouraged to use their shelters such that there is spare shelter capacity within the group, for flexibility. The Phase 1 model has the quality of a protective cocoon. If during this phase or at a later stage, somebody does show symptoms, then in addition to isolating that individual and preparing for further steps thereof, the Phase 1 model may be continued or returned to for the rest of the group.
The above is an overview. It is only meant to provide a broad idea of how things have changed.
WMI first aid courses are now an integral part of NOLS. How has the onset and spread of COVID-19 affected the WMI curriculum? Has measures around the avoidance, detection and field management of COVID-19 / infectious diseases become a part of contemporary WMI curriculum?
All WMI courses start with an hour-long class on infection control, right after introductions. The class covers a wide range of infections and devotes ten minutes to Covid related infections and how to mitigate the spread. This addition has forced the removal of the lightning class in WFA courses, and altitude illness. Now we direct students to watch videos on the topics as homework.
The WMI courses are full and busy. They even started running courses partly online and partly with classroom presence. We are still adapting to norms and restrictions in large classrooms and how we run practical patient care with minimum exposure to each other.
How did COVID-19 affect NOLS India? What is the short to medium term plan for India operations? Do you anticipate any changes to how you run courses here as a consequence of the pandemic?
NOLS has decided to close a few international locations for good. India is not one of them. I hope it continues so. Most of the students on our programs run in India, are from the US. Although the US itself has struggled to deal with the pandemic (even today the number of people succumbing to the disease is high) the combination of what happened in India and how it got portrayed, has been such that a proper perspective of the reality in India is absent in the US.
Hence the school has decided to take a conservative wait and watch approach as regards restarting India operations. It is imperative that when in India, our students should get proper medical care if required. We cannot restart when the health care system is overwhelmed or there are indications, it may be.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The WMI first aid courses offered by NOLS are WFA, WAFA and WFR of which WFA is the shortest.)