Beyond the Classroom in a COVID Year

Beyond the Classroom in a COVID Year

Thank you to David McFall, Principal of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School, Gatineau, Quebec, for providing this post.

JULY 4 2021 – Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School (PETES) is a part of the Western Quebec School Board in Gatineau, Quebec. The school has a population of 550 students, is located in downtown Gatineau (Hull), and is minutes from the Canadian parliament buildings in the city of Ottawa, Ontario.

Separated by the Ottawa River and provincial border, Quebec and Ontario followed two distinctly different paths during the pandemic. Quebec elementary school doors closed for only six weeks to online learning, whereas Ontario school buildings closed for a total of 17-weeks (42% of the school year). Since there were very few confirmed Covid-19 cases in any of the English schools in Quebec, the provincial government’s decision to keep school buildings open was the right one.

As this historic school year finally ends, it is important to reflect on how our educational thinking has adapted and evolved during the past 12 months.

Given the uncertain landscape in the summer, 2020/2021 was seemingly destined to be the most demanding of school years for students, staff and parents. Throughout the school year, it would have been easy to adopt a negative attitude about the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead. The prevailing narrative could have been dominated by the words – red zone, social distancing, masks, class bubbles, quarantine, distance learning, isolation, contact tracing, no extra-curricular activities and no field trips. quality of classroom ventilation, snow days, heat days, and strike days. Honestly, you could just not imagine the number of unique challenges encountered this year.

However, at PETES, we have always preferred to focus on the positive aspects of school life and search for answers to overcome challenges. Therefore, our dominant words for the year favoured a much more positive and playful tone – outdoor classes, orienteering, carpentry, forest days, nature walks, Winterpalooza, Indigenous days, scooter days, bike days, skating, snowshoeing, skiing, sledding, tents, logs, fun, play, and nature. The positivity of the staff and the playful approach to teaching and learning transformed the school climate and shielded students from any unnecessary stress and anxiety. In fact, the emotional health, sense of belonging and level of engagement of our students was better than any previous school year.

Throughout the year, our guiding principle for school organization was quite simple – create a safe and healthy environment at school for students and staff. Since epidemiologists claimed outside was 20 times safer than inside, we thought that moving learning outdoors was just a matter of common sense. Little did we know that was not necessarily the norm elsewhere? Our mantras were clear – “think and organize differently“, “give students a break from technology” and “take the learning outdoors“. The increased time spent at school inspired the staff to be more creative and daring, which inevitably influenced and reframed our approach to teaching and learning and education in general. At year-end, we discovered several unexpected health and learning benefits from taking the learning outdoors.

  • Students were more at ease when starting each morning exercising/moving outdoors
  • Students and staff were more relaxed and patient with the removal of school bells
  • There were less disturbances when classes would enter and exit the building as a single group (instead of a surge at bell time)
  • Staggering class recess times and creating designated class play zones allowed for more calm and peace on the playground
  • Taking the learning outdoors not only benefitted our emotionally unregulated students but it benefitted all students
  • No student was ever sent to the principal’s office when learning outdoors
  • Relationships between students and staff improved when classes took place outdoors
  • Teachers became more creative with lesson plans and learning intentions when using the outdoors as their classroom
  • Phys. Ed. can take place outdoors for the entire year (even in Canada)
  • Two kindergarten groups are going to pilot “outdoor nature immersion” for the 2021/2022 school year
  • Staff and students experienced technology fatigue during isolation and embraced the low-tech outdoor philosophy
  • Learning through play and nature allowed all students to be available for learning for longer periods of time

Madam Ableson, a grade one French Immersion teacher, reflected on this past year and eloquently summarized our growing outdoor movement:

“Thank you admin team for trusting us to do what we felt was right for our students: allowing us to be outdoors longer if needed, allowing us to take the learning off campus, allowing us to move our schedules around to fit student’s needs, and for getting rid of school bells. In a year like this one, having this freedom allowed us to completely rethink our way of teaching and learning. It forced us to push the reset button and head down the path less traveled. Something we must continue in the future.

This year we learned about mushrooms and were able to walk into the forest to collect some, analyze them and group them.

We talked about frogs, tadpoles and turtles in class. We took walks to the river with our nets and caught tadpoles and spotted frogs and turtles.

We learned about insects and found many butterflies in our schoolyard and forest.

Thank you for thinking outside the box and for being so creative with the resources we had.

Thank you for prioritizing students’ health, safety and happiness.

Thank you for listening to teacher concerns and doing what you could to alleviate them.

Thank you for bringing out the best in a year that could have easily been the worse – Julianne Ableson”.

Thanks to the generous government grants for additional staffing, we were able to dedicate two staff members to oversee our healthy lifestyles and outdoor learning programs. This motivated teachers to sign their classes up for daily outdoor learning activities. By providing our students and staff with new opportunities to participate in healthy, fun, outdoor learning, we strategically and skilfully reframed a more positive outlook for the 2020/2021 school year.

To capitalize on the gathering momentum, the staff organized a “Winterpalooza Extravaganza” to embrace the great Canadian outdoors. Staff and parent volunteers organized a rotation of stations that included – snow carving, broom ball, obstacle course, sledding on Mt. PETES, snow volcanoes, snow maple taffy, Timbits, and hot chocolate. Each grade had a dedicated Winterlude day and this celebration of outdoor fun was undoubtedly a highlight of this remarkable school year.

Throughout the school year, we received considerable local and national media attention for our approach to “outdoor learning in a Covid year“. We also received international attention as the school featured on the weekly BBC 4 radio podcasts “Health Check” and “From our own Correspondent”. In all honesty, the idea of an “outdoor approach to teaching and learning” and “having fun at school in a Covid year” just seems so obvious. However, if BBC thinks that this is internationally newsworthy, maybe it is not so obvious to everyone.

Our philosophy of school organization has changed dramatically over the past 12 months. At first glance, one would assume that the future of education would inevitably feature a greater reliance on the integration of technology in a digital world. However, when we take a second glance, we realize this is definitely not the case at Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

As we continue to observe an increase in children’s screen time and reduced time in nature, it has become an imperative at PETES to adapt and reimagine traditional school thinking. However, what will be required for our educational philosophy in a post-pandemic world; will be a more back to basics approach with a focus on the emotional health and well-being of students by learning outdoors through play and nature.

In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge that we have successfully navigated 12 months of school during a global pandemic. Now is really a time for reflection and celebration. Staying healthy, safe, and moving beyond the classroom has been a collective effort between the staff and entire school community. The outdoor educational revolution is afoot!

Media Reports:

BBC World Service – Health Check, Measles outbreak threat due to Covid (11 minute mark)

From Our Own Corerspondent – Facing defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh (17 minute mark)

Two local schools started taking class outside five years ago. Here’s what they learned | Ottawa Citizen

Classes move outdoors to prevent COVID-19 spread | The Globe and Mail

A Gatineau school is taking classes outdoors this year | CBC Listen

Western Quebec elementary schools reopen | Ottawa Morning with Robyn Bresnahan