Is it just me, or does our beloved Quebec never really change?

As a former Montreal – area high school teacher, I read with great interest Chris Eustace’s worrying column “Indoor air quality is poor at far too many schools”(Gazette, August 6, 2013, A-15).

My 35-½ year career in secondary education started in Laval with a one-year sojourn in 1969 in a brand new building. For better and for worse, the two-storey pavilion represented the latest in school architecture as known at the time. More importantly, the newly-erected education facility had that ‘new car smell’ that permeated its corridors and classrooms, its gymnasium and auditorium. It was so greatly appreciated, as I recollect, by teachers and students alike.

At the time, I do not recall the quality of the air being poor. Besides, I was only 22 and very little bothered me then.

Such was no longer the case when later in my career I found myself working in structures of considerable age. The first of these was in Lasalle where for the initial and only time in my profession I was teaching in an edifice where the windows had all been nailed shut. Seemed some   rebellious students had been inclined to throw items from the classroom to the ground below, much to the annoyance of the direction of the school.

Consequently, the room in which I taught was stifling and airless, an oppressive atmosphere in which the pupils and I were both suffering. As the administration of the educational institution was not particularly interested in making any changes to the unventilated situation, I myself addressed the problem with a crowbar and hammer.

Within a few days, and the visit of one pigeon into the room and the dispatching of one chair out of the room, the window situation settled down with both the students and I eventually coming to appreciate the movement of fresh air in our midst. I immediately noticed a marked increase in the attention span of the adolescents in question.

For the final ten years of my teaching vocation, I was assigned to a school in NDG that today would fall, as Mr. Eustace mentioned, into the category of buildings more than 60 years old.

While the casements were not nailed shut in this facility, many of them were dangerous when opened. It seems that over time, the counter – weights of many of these vintage, guillotine style windows had become defective, leaving the full weight of the sash window free to come crashing down on some poor unsuspecting individual. Due to omnipresent budget constraints, these hazards were only replaced over a protracted period of time.

In my opinion, the pupils’ lockers were also a constant source of malodorous air in an old school. Generally speaking, no one ever cleans a student’s locker so if the building is 60 years old so is the accumulated dirt within it. Some teens aggravated the issue by leaving their bagged lunch, unopened and uneaten, in their assigned locker for weeks on end. Sooner or later, a foul odour or an abundance of fruit flies, or both, would reveal the problem.

Believe me, the traditional end of the year emptying of the lockers was not a particularly pleasant sight.

As Mr. Eustace argues, fresh air in our educational facilities is vital. In my last high school, upon arrival every morning, I would cautiously open the windows of both my classroom and the corridor adjacent to it. If the pupils were cold or uncomfortable, they would close them. However, it at least allowed for a rapid ‘change of air’. It also annoyed the fruit flies, I suspect.

As big as the problem is, it is nothing new. Over a century ago, Montreal schools were the subject of a report drawn up by a team of medical inspectors who travelled from building to building to carry out their task. Their findings shocked all Montrealers who had always thought that they were doing right by their children in sending them for an education.

The scathing report was presented to the city’s mayor at the time, Henry Archer Ekers. It revealed a litany of insalubrious problems, including the same poor indoor air quality issue that Mr. Eustace mentions over a hundred years later.

In a period editorial entitled “The Scandalous Condition of Our Schools”, the Montreal Star lamented the fact that school children are often taught in facilities with “foul air and permanent humidity.” The 1906 perspective concluded: “Any institution which undertakes to care for the welfare of our children must, at least, be able to guard their health.”

It would seem that little has changed.

(below, Ottawa Model School, 1899)


 (Courtesy of the Public Archives of Canada)