An outdoor classroom, this one with an Indigenous theme, has been built amid the green space at St. Nicholas Catholic Elementary School in Newmarket. Photo courtesy York Region Catholic School Board

Schools planning for a shady future

By 
  • May 4, 2019

Kent Shadwick has seen all kinds of numbers that suggest the youth of today are facing a future that includes a rise in skin cancer cases.

Whether it is in the one-of-four or one-of-six range — some of the numbers he has come across — it’s a frightening prospect.

“Somewhere in between is obviously the truth but it’s still a substantial number of students,” said Shadwick, assistant manager of Environmental Services with the York Catholic District School Board. “So anything you can do to help reduce the exposure (to harmful UV rays) on school sites and local parks makes a big difference.”

Schools have recognized the issue and many boards are doing what they can to mitigate this future problem. At the York Catholic board, it shows in the increasing number of schools creating green spaces through the board’s School Ground Greening Program. In 2018 more than 20 of the board’s 101 schools used the greening program for projects such as outdoor classrooms, tree and shrub plantings and seating projects on their grounds. And as we get deeper into the spring season, Shadwick is hearing from more schools interested in such projects.

“Every year we try to do a little bit better, do a few more projects,” he said.

The major focus is bringing shade to school grounds. Shade lowers the ambient air temperatures around the school, bringing cooler temperatures to the students on the grounds. It also lowers the temperature of the air sucked into a school through its ventilation system.

“The big motivator now is shade because schools are trying to improve their shade canopy, either via tree plantings or by commercial-grade umbrellas that provide instant shade,” said Shadwick.

Typically, a number of trees — still in their infancy and measuring between eight and 14 feet — will be planted on the grounds and will grow rapidly over the next five to 10 years before they provide substantial shade. Mulch is also spread around “to soften the surface” of a typical asphalt schoolyard.

As with all projects outside of the classroom in Ontario schools, funding is an issue. And landscaping is not cheap. Boards typically don’t have the money available to improve schools grounds in such a manner, so it is largely left in the hands of the school community. It has led to partnerships with other levels of government or environmental agencies to make sure these projects have a life on school grounds.

For the York Catholic board, that has meant partnering with York Region, TD Friends of the Environment Foundation and Evergreen, which since 1991 has worked to engage Canadians in creating and sustaining healthy environments. Schools are directed to the Ontario EcoSchools program, which will help connect schools with partners who share its vision of building environmentally responsible school communities and nurturing future environmental leaders.

Last year, TD Friends of the Environment Foundation granted almost $42,000 to four schools for their projects, while $15,000 was contributed by the 407 ETR for tree plantings at three schools and York Region’s $15,000 grant provided trees for schools throughout the board.

Eco-teams from each school work with the professional landscape consultants and staff from Environmental Services, said Shadwick. “It’s a great learning opportunity for them with the partnerships,” he said.

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