Guest post: How to teach in a pandemic


The past year has presented numerous challenges for education. Here David McFall explains how his school kept teaching.

We last heard from David McFall, Principal of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (PETES), on February 5, 2021. His guest post, ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’, shared how his school was responding to the conditions imposed on it to deal with the pandemic. Now David reflects on a year of incredible upheaval. 

Beyond the Classroom in a Covid Year

July 4, 2021

By David McFall (Principal)

Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School (PETES) is 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 and 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 were closed for only six weeks with a switch to online learning, whereas Ontario school buildings closed for a total of 17-weeks (42 per cent 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 has proved to be 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 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 just could 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. As such, our mantra since the beginning of the pandemic has been “take the learning and activities outdoors”. 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. 


These past 12-months have proven that rethinking traditional education may not be as straightforward and obvious as it may seem. At PETES, 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. 

Madam Ableson, a grade one French Immersion teacher, reflected on this past year and eloquently summarised 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 worst – 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 students and staff with new opportunities to participate in healthy, fun, outdoor learning activities, we strategically and skilfully reframed a more positive outlook for the 2020/2021 school year.  

To capitalise on the gathering momentum, the staff organised a “Winterpalooza Extravaganza” to embrace the great Canadian outdoors. Staff and parent volunteers organized a rotation of stations that included – snow carving, broomball, 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.  

Our philosophy of school organisation 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!