COVID-19 Outdoor Recreation and Education (CORE) Research Committee

Contact Information: Aaron Leonard,, 512-961-0754

A Study of the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Adventure and Experiential Education Organizations


The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), now known as COVID-19, has changed the way the world works, and the adventure and experiential education fields (AEE) are no exception. The purpose of this study is to systematically gather the collective wisdom of program leadership (CEO, CFO, executive directors, risk and safety management directors, etc.) on the near- and long-term viability of their programs, the changes they have made or will likely make in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they envision remaining sustainable.

The committee was formed in April 2020 to design and implement a mixed method study examining the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the outdoor adventure education and wilderness therapy fields. A request to conduct a multi-phased mixed method research project involving human subjects was submitted to the Prescott College IRB and approved.
Phase 1 (April 23, 2020 – May 6, 2020). In Phase 1 phone interviews were conducted with leadership from 12 outdoor adventure education and wilderness therapy organizations to gather general information about the state of their programs during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic. The primary qualitative data collected in phase 1 informed the design of the 51-question Phase 2 survey instrument (n=12).
Phase 2 (May 6, 2020 – July 6, 2020). In Phase 2, the 51-question survey instrument was fielded to 65 organizations accredited by the Association of Experiential Education and 18 organizations from the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education identified as past recipients of the David J. Webb Program Excellence Award. Total sample size was 83 with 34 responses (n=34). Responses were coded and analyzed by a two-person team in a CAQDAS program. Quantitative date were summarized.
Phase 3 (July 22, 2020 – September 7, 2020). The Phase 2 survey instrument was fielded again in Phase 3 with one additional question regarding equity. The Phase 3 survey was fielded to organizational members of the Association for Experiential Education, the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, 72 past participants of the University of Utah’s Nature’s Grace Symposium, and over social media. 81 usable responses were reported (n=81). Responses were coded and analyzed by a two-person team in a CAQDAS program. Quantitative date were summarized.
Phase 4 (September 8, 2020 – TBD). In Phase 4 the committee presented initial results at four membership organizations to include the Wilderness Risk Management Conference, the Association for Experiential Education virtual conference, and the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education virtual conference. The Phase 3 survey was minimally modified and fielded to attendees of the conference presentations resulting in 10 responses (n=10) as of 12/31/2020.

Initial Findings

  • No organization was prepared for a pandemic and no organization has figured out how to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic without measurable impact to their operations and clients.
  • No organization has determined when the pandemic will no longer affect their operations and all operational organizations have adopted COVID-19 policies.
  • Organizations indicated they sought early advice and solutions from ACA, AEE, AORE, WRMC, etc.
  • All organizations that had provided client transportation indicate that they either no longer do so or have reduced capacity.
  • When asked if and how organizations have incorporated virtual technology (VT) respondents provided mixed reviews with some responding that they have no plans to incorporate any VT in their program. Respondents indicate that the use of VT is both temporary and dependent on the type of activity being replaced. No organization has indicated that VT is a permanent replacement for outdoor activities.


Top Six Risk Management Questions and Concerns

  • How to mitigate physical and emotional risk.
  • How to respond to a client or staff member developing symptoms during a program or testing positive for COVID-19 during or following a program.
  • How to safely mitigate COVID-19 transmission where social distancing standards are difficult to implement or supervise.
  • How to prevent or lessen the likelihood of their program being closed by a health department or similar agency.
  • Concerns regarding staff availability due to increased risk at the workplace.
  • Increased barriers to participation due to COVID-19 risk management protocols, e.g., no longer providing transportation.


The committee will release information via the Association for Experiential Education and Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education websites.

In Phase 4 the committee will begin the writing process on topics such as: Risk Management, Nearby Nature, and Organizational Resiliency. We will also share how the field can access and use the information from our study.

The Outdoor Adventure Education COVID-19 Research Committee was organized and led by Alan Ewert, PhD Indiana University, and Aaron Leonard, Prescott College and the Sierra Club.

The other members of the committee are:

Sherry Bagley, Association for Experiential Education
Anthony Deringer, EdD, Texas State University
Kodiak Lieberman-Raridon, Prescott College
Denise Mitten, PhD, Prescott College
Christine Norton, PhD, Texas State University
Erik Rabinowitz, PhD, Appalachian State University
John Regentin, Gettysburg College
Forrest Schwartz, PhD, Prescott College
Steve Smith, Experiential Consulting, LLC