In what was otherwise a gleeful walk-through of what will become their new school in September, École La Prairie senior students were wary when it came to the washrooms.
After walking in straight from the hallway, unimpeded by doors or separating walls, many of the Grade 8s and 9s wondered aloud how any student could use the facilities with sufficient privacy. Nervous laughter accompanied the nervous looks.
Talk to anyone about school washrooms and you can expect some of that nervous laughter. Grade 10 student Zachary Strom may have made the understatement of the year in saying “going to the bathroom is somewhat of a private ordeal.”
But in Alberta schools, the bathroom is becoming less private. Doors have been knocked out to improve accessibility, and in the last decade obstructions have been removed to allow staff to see right into the rooms from the hallway.
The open concept design has been adopted to make student supervision easier, said Alberta Infrastructure spokesperson Tracy Larsen, with partitions, walls and stall doors maintaining student privacy. In the three new schools set to open in Red Deer this September, one can see individual stall doors from the hallway, with urinals and the toilets tucked behind a half wall, obstructed from view.
Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division has been taking the open concept approach for the last 10 years, with now a handful of schools containing the design. Ken Jaeger, the division’s supervisor of support services, says the setup works great, taking away a setting that could encourage bullying or loitering.
“Based on our experiences with the closed doors and some of the issues and the things that were going on there unsupervised and unseen, this way it just makes it very easy for male and female teachers to supervise the other gender, so to speak,” said Jaeger.
“(It’s) just the comfort level of them not having to open the door and say ‘Is there anyone in here? Everything OK?’ ”
Coming from a 1953-built school, the newer design will represent an adjustment for the École La Prairie students. For Strom and Mackenzie Schultz too, who came to Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School from Christian schools with washroom doors and view-blocking corners, there has been some getting used to.
For their peer Jadyn Smith, though, who went to Mattie McCullough Elementary School, the open-door policy does not cause embarrassment.
“I think it’s fairly normal to see in. I don’t think it’s a big deal. We all need to pee. It’s a natural human function, so it’s just what it is,” said Smith.
At Thurber, a partition prevents someone walking in the hallway to see feet in a stall, but the view to the sinks is unimpeded.
At schools like Notre Dame and the new Penhold Crossing, there are no doors. But one must walk around a corner to see or get inside, a setup similar to those in airports or recreation centres.
In new elementary builds, though, there is no such thing. Sinks and mirrors are easily viewed by anyone passing by and in Red Deer’s new Catholic elementary school, students will have to walk back out into the hallway to wash up and check themselves in shared sinks and mirrors.
Jaeger says such a setup makes it easier for school staff to manage student health.
“In the older, closed door model, the student walked out and nobody really knew if they washed their hands or not. From a hygiene standpoint, it’s very good there for the younger children,” said Jaeger.
As students grow older, they will spend less time “pruning themselves” in front of a mirror if it is in the hallway, he added.
While unperturbed by open concept washrooms, Grade 10 student Smith is not so sure about bringing parts of the washroom into the hallway.
“Especially from the perspective of a girl, it’s nice (to have some privacy). I feel like if it’s in the hallway, that’d be really uncomfortable,” she said.
The Alberta Building Code from 1990 stated that — except for washrooms in daycare centres — single-sex washrooms must be enclosed and have doors. A 1992 ruling removed that provision but maintained that “water closets” and urinals, and the people using them, must not be visible to people outside of the washrooms.
An Alberta Infrastructure spokesperson said the department’s main priority with schools is student safety.