How Toronto’s first open-air school responded to the tuberculosis crisis more than 100 years ago

It can be described as one of the most progressive TDSB schools yet it dates back to 1914.

Orde Street Public School, in the heart of downtown Toronto, was built as an open-air school for the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis in children — the first of its kind. The third-floor blueprints show several open-air classrooms and an accessible rooftop classroom which remains open to the elements to this day.

Children, either recovering from or considered susceptible to the contagious disease tuberculosis, were admitted to Orde Street school.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that primarily affects the lungs and throughout the 19th century, TB — also called phthisis or consumption — was a leading cause of death in the industrialized world.

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“There were a lot of poverty issues, malnourishment issues … and they were looking at how the public school system could support public health and how the buildings could enhance student learning,” said Greg McKinnon, manager of the TDSB Museum and Archives.

Prior to the 1950s, the treatment for TB included plenty of fresh air, rest, and a good diet. Archival images showed Orde Street school students bundled up, learning and resting in the rooftop classrooms.

“Almost what we would call foul weather gear: large hats, heavy coats,” said McKinnon.

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Then a couple of years after the school opened, another crisis hit.

“During the Spanish Flu back in 1918, it was a great place to be learning because kids could attend and be outside which was the best place to be,” said Orde Street Public School Principal Michael Walkington.

Board of Education for the City of Toronto reports cited improved vigour and activity of students, improved mentality, as well as increased student awareness of the importance of hygiene, sanitation, basic nutrition and fresh, circulating air.

The third floor at Orde Street Public School is now under construction, but once the renovation is complete, current students and teachers will return to incorporating open-air lessons, including environmental science projects such as the study of planting and harvesting.

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