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Learnings from a fieldwork with high school students in the pandemic

May 4, 2021
By Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque

Empty high school hallway Credit: Rob Thomas -

Has your research been on hold or canceled in the last year due to COVID-19 restrictions? 

Luckily, mine has been going on.  Let me tell you that it’s one thing to do research during a pandemic, it is another to have your PhD focus on young people’s everyday life in schools. 

In that sense, let's explore the implications and key learnings of doing long-term fieldwork with high school students in a time where uncertainties and gathering constraints prevail. 

Unravelling fieldwork and pandemic 

To understand how youth participation is understood, practiced, and experienced by students and school staff, it was important for me to participate in the school’s everyday life over a full year. I decided to get involved in two projects on environment and climate change in a couple of high schools in Montreal that aimed at changing students’ lives within and around their school. The goal was to engage students between 12 and 17 years old as co-researchers. 

First wave 

When the pandemic hit us in March 2020 schools across the province however closed. What will it mean for my research? The question echoed in my head. March to December was a long first wave of adjustments to make the research more concrete and appealing for the schools to embark on this journey with me amidst the uncertainty and the countless challenges they would be facing. 

Understandably, this period was also about ensuring that I’d be meeting the criteria for in-person research and complying with ethical and sanitary standards both for Concordia and in the schools. At times, I felt things were running so slow --even time itself!  At others, I was just trying to catch my breath and elaborate numerous plan Bs. 

When I finally got to enter the schools, it was mostly about being tiny as a mouse to not disturb school staff and teachers working so hard to maintain the ship afloat –and it goes without saying that it entailed not spreading the virus! It was also about just being present and building relationships with key informants and gatekeepers. 

Second wave 

Teen at home having remote school on laptop computer Credit: 24k-Production -

January to March coincided with a second wave of adjustments to online schooling and online youth committees, as students and staff were sometimes in-person, other times in (preventive) isolation and therefore at home.  

While during this phase there was the spreading of both variants and double masks, there was also the emergence of a more welcoming and relaxed atmosphere, as if everybody was used to “it”. The start of winter walks and the sprouting of camaraderie between students, teachers and myself helped secure a form of partnership. My memories from that time are sprinkled with laughter, fresh air and spurts of collaboration. 

Third wave

n a demonstration, person holding a poster with slogan "System change not Climate change" Credit: Thauwald-pictures -

Starting in April, this third wave is characterized by movement. Students planned actions for Earth Day and planted seeds for the school’s garden. This new chapter is defined so far by a reconnection with nature, an eagerness for the outdoors and renewed activism. There's also an opening for deepening our collaborative relationships. 

Learnings from doing a long-term fieldwork with youth during the pandemic

Quoting a friend and colleague (Hi Emilia!) to help me process it all: “What can we learn from this? How can we grow from this?” These learnings are still preliminary given we’re not out of the woods just yet!  

First, I realized how creative we can be in terms of connecting and engaging both with young people and adults under constraints. It resonates with different academic groups that have reflected over the year on how the pandemic has impacted the ways we do research. Tools have been developed to adapt to the new situation, for instance, some broadly discussed qualitative research; others attended to remote ethnography, while others created guides to address specific situations such as partnering with children in child protection services during Covid-19.

Second, this whole situation we were in (do I dare to say “mess”?) actually raises a key question around doing research in children’s everyday life: “where are children and youth voices amidst the pandemic?” have asked Collin and colleagues last year. Indeed, how do we reach out to them in a pandemic and how is their right to participation (and even, to non-discrimination) actualized in such a context?  

Finally, a take-away from the last year is definitely the importance of nurturing relationships in research --and, of course, in one’s personal life. Even if I had planned everything tightly, there are things that can’t be forced. Relationships are key to youth partnerships, even more in unsettling moments, and... they take time to build.  If I look back, I found strength in small steps, inspiration in dedication, and meaning in letting life find its ways...

Seedlings in peat pots Credit: J. Garget from Pixabay

About the author

Photo of Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque

Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque is a PhD candidate in the Individualized Program (INDI). Her research examines the ways youth participation is understood, practiced, and experienced by youth and school staff in a youth-led and an adult-led school initiative on environment and climate change in two high schools in Montreal.

Recipient of a Nelson Mandela Award, her research is also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Concordia University. Prior to her PhD, she has worked on diversity, inclusion and on knowledge mobilization in education and in health care and social services and holds both a BSc (2010) and a MSc (2013) in Anthropology from Université de Montréal.

Geneviève is a member of the Child Rights Academic Network, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, a student member of the Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l’environnement et à l’écocitoyenneté, and an academic member for the North American Regional Children’s Environmental Rights Consultations for the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

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