Motorists driving along Fisher Boulevard in the Slingerlands hamlet of Bethlehem may notice several yurts outside of Bethlehem Children's School and wonder why they are there.

An online petition created by residents who live nearby states the yurts were a temporary solution to allow BCS students to socially distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the school wants to make the expansion permanent.

At a planning board public hearing last month, residents voiced concerns about the proposed permanent use of the yurts as outdoor classroom space and other improvements.

"The noise pollution is a nuisance, the odors," said a neighbor at the meeting. "The outhouse was placed right up against my fence, not a foot away, not five feet away, not 10 feet away. So I hear the words people are saying. I don't much listen to words. I kind of gauge them by actions, and I think that their actions have been complete disregard to the neighbors."

Parents of BCS students, who do not live in the houses bordering the school, showed up in droves to defend it.

"I am in complete support of keeping the yurts," said a BCS parent. "And I think it's a phenomenal idea to move them closer to the school, away from the property lines. That way, we can make some middle grounds, improving the fencing quality, which would also reduce visual and audio transmission."

According to the school's website, a group of parents met in the fall of 1994 with the goal of creating a child-centered, inquiry-based elementary school. What started as a class of 15 has now grown, according to the website, to serve more than 75.

Neighbors say this isn't about whether or not they care for children, but where children should be cared for.

"We think what you're doing is great," a neighbor said at the hearing. "It's awesome, it's cool. What we're saying is you don't belong growing and growing and growing among our neighbors. You're too big for the lot you're on, and you've changed the landscape tremendously."

The school declined an interview, but sent a statement from Christine Capeless Vaughan, head of school at Bethlehem Children's School.

"Bethlehem Children’s School’s first priority is the early development of its students through nature-based education. We began to experience an increase in enrollment before the pandemic, but during the pandemic, like many Capital Region private schools, we needed to adapt quickly and efficiently in order to best serve our students. Our enrollment has since remained constant even as the school’s popularity grows, because local families are attracted to the safety and efficacy of our nature-based outdoor learning. Our yurts align with our focus on nature and being able to bring our students outdoors to appreciate our surroundings. We look forward to working with the Bethlehem Town Planning Board to continue to find a workable middle ground without disrupting the students’ education. We have been coordinating with our Facility and Grounds Committee, developing plans that we have already shared with the Bethlehem Town Planning Board, and we will continue to keep an open channel of communication to ensure a swift and agreeable outcome. Some of the proposed solutions we’ve presented include improving the sightline for our neighbors through evergreen and deciduous plantings, and the relocation of our yurts to create more space for our neighbors. Our mission since 1999 has always been to offer a multi-age experiential education for the whole child, emphasizing nature, wisdom, and wellness. We will continue to keep that mission at the forefront as we look ahead to solutions for the betterment of our student body, and our neighborhood."

The planning board will consider comments and any changes to the school's plan before setting a date for a decision.

The Town of Bethlehem is still accepting public comment. It suggests people stay involved by checking the upcoming agendas on their website, where they can also submit feedback.