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Raging Wildfire Delays School for Hundreds of B.C. Students

Parent ponders online learning option for her son with no end in sight to school closure.

By Katie Hyslop 6 Sep 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

The majority of British Columbia’s 600,000 Kindergarten to Grade 12 students headed back to school this week. But for approximately 300 students, school is still out for summer thanks to a wildfire that continues to rage in the Cariboo region.

The Cariboo-Chilcotin School District school year started Sept. 5, but the district has delayed the opening of five schools under evacuation alerts for the ongoing Plateau fire. The schools include: Horse Lake Elementary; Alexis Creek Elementary and Junior Secondary; Anahim Lake Elementary and Junior Secondary; Dog Creek Elementary and Junior Secondary; and Tatla Lake Elementary and Junior Secondary.

Approximately 300 students are affected. Half normally attend Horse Lake, the largest of the five schools. Another 12 schools in the district have bus routes affected by the Plateau fire, a 521,000-hectare monster that started July 7.

“When the board met earlier this summer to determine a plan for return to school, one of the parameters was we would not open schools that were within an evacuation order or alert areas due to the fact that we are responsible for students when they are in our care,” said Cariboo-Chilcotin School District board chair Tanya Guenther.

She said an evacuation alert means schools have 30 minutes to evacuate should the fire situation change.

“If that alert was to be changed to an order at any time, it would present a number of challenges in ensuring that we could reunite students with families.”

The Quesnel School District started most classes on time on Wednesday. But because of the same Plateau fire, the 30 or so Kindergarten to Grade 7 Nazko Valley Elementary students in the small ranching community of Nazko Valley, B.C. started the school year roughly 100 kilometres away in Quesnel at Bouchie Lake Elementary¬.

Their commute was made a lot shorter as the community was evacuated to Quesnel over the summer, says Perry Lofstrom, director of instruction-human resources for the school district.

“It actually makes sense to take them to a school where we have space, and we do at Bouchie Lake School. We have busing available for them in town,” he said, adding students and staff from Nazko will work out of two empty classrooms.

The Nazko Valley evacuation order would need to be downgraded to at least an alert before the district considers moving students back to their community school, and Lofstrom doesn’t know when that will be.

“But we would be planning that, and making sure families were supported and part of our planning,” he said.

Cariboo-Chilcotin School District board chair Guenther doesn’t know how many students would be impacted by the bus route changes, whose regular passengers include Grade 11 and 12 students from communities under alert to attend schools in larger communities like 100 Mile House. The district is offering financial assistance to families who apply to help cover the cost of driving their kids to school.

Klatsusine Cooper, 17, was supposed to start Grade 10 and 11 classes at Alexis Creek this week, but instead he’s helping out his mom, Susan Rae Alphonse, with chores around the house.

In an online text conversation, Alphonse told The Tyee she isn’t worried about the impact on her son’s school year yet. But she’s heard rumours the fire could last until the snow starts in October, a timeline too long for her son to be out of school. If that long delay happens, Alphonse suggested the district consider online learning.

“With technology in their school work, if they were smart, I say have work online now,” she wrote, adding teachers could check students’ work and keep in touch by email. “[It] will keep the pace from falling behind.”

A spokesperson for the Education Ministry told The Tyee via email that districts did not have to make up for lost class time due to wildfires. Board chair Guenther says district senior staff are still determining what they will do about lost time and are assessing the wildfire situation daily.

She added Cariboo-Chilcotin School District is updating parents via email, the district website, and, in the case of Alexis Creek School at least, Facebook, while staff are at work in the five schools and available to answer parents’ questions.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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