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Municipal Politics

Despite Floods and Fire, School in Abbotsford Goes On

Two-thirds of schools opened yesterday, some without ventilation or heat for several hours due to smoke warning.

Katie Hyslop 18 Nov

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

The City of Abbotsford is still under a local state of emergency due to the overflowing Nooksack River following heavy rains on Sunday and Monday.

About 600 people have been evacuated, particularly in the Sumas Prairie region, thousands of farm animals have drowned, and the damage assessment is ongoing as flood waters measured as deep as 1.5 metres yesterday in some areas.

To make matters worse, yesterday a fire at an RV dealership on the west side of the city sent up plumes of toxic smoke, with residents advised to keep their windows and doors closed.

But despite the fact much of the city was underwater, damaged by flooding or in danger of breathing in toxic fumes, 31 schools, or two-thirds of those in the district, reopened to in-person instruction yesterday after being closed Tuesday.

Another 12 schools switched to virtual learning, while three elementary schools remain closed due to flooding until at least next Monday.

However, 25 of the schools that remained open had their HVAC systems temporarily shut off yesterday to prevent fire smoke from entering buildings, which meant the schools were without ventilation or indoor heating during a pandemic in November.

Parents were not informed until an email was sent home Wednesday evening, because the district said their parent notification system was experiencing outages.

“With shelter-in-place measures, these schools stayed indoors and had modified systems for approximately two hours while fire crews actively worked to put out the large structure fire in Abbotsford,” reads an emailed statement from the Abbotsford School District.

“However, we have several layers of protective COVID-19 health and safety measures in place in schools, and for this short period, we had to manage the external air quality risks.”

Some teachers were unable to come to work in the district yesterday as they were cut off or displaced from their homes by flood waters.

Two Abbotsford school teachers who asked to remain anonymous to avoid violating the “duty of loyalty and fidelity” teachers owe to their employer, which includes speaking out publicly against their district, said the district should have taken a cue from the Princeton and Merritt district and kept all schools closed this week.

One elementary school teacher said their school’s HVAC system wasn’t just shut off for two hours, but the whole day. This led to temperatures below 20 C in the school, they said. But their biggest concern was the potential for COVID exposures.

“All the kids who were in that building, they have no vaccinations,” she said on Wednesday, adding Abbotsford is in the part of the Fraser Health region that faces tougher COVID restrictions.

While parents were eventually informed of the HVAC shutoff, the teacher said the district didn’t warn schools about the cutoff, leaving school principals to inquire as to why their systems were not working.

It’s erased her trust in the district, she said.

“I don’t trust anything they say. As a mom, I don’t think I’m sending my kid back to school for a while,” she said. “I want to see the [COVID] fallout.”

Reopening 31 Abbotsford schools yesterday was a joint decision made by the school district, municipal government, police, fire department and other first responders, said Supt. Kevin Godden.

“If you drive through the rest of Abbotsford, you would have no idea we were dealing with issues. It’s a beautiful day everywhere else in the city,” he said on Wednesday.

The three closed schools are either within the flood zone, or vehicle access is cut off by flood waters. The decision to transition another 12 schools to online learning was made to keep vehicle traffic low in the region to allow for emergency vehicle access.

Godden said that schools are safe. They were opened on Wednesday because parents need to go to work and schools are a hopeful place for students in tumultuous times, he said.

“Families rely on us for the simple thing of being able to go to work, and to drop their kids off and know that they are well taken care of, so they can put food on the table,” he said.

While rumours swirled online that teachers who weren’t able to make it to their teaching jobs in Abbotsford would be docked pay, Godden said that isn’t the case.

He views the situation like a snow day: you try your best to get to work, but if you can’t make it, you can’t make it.

“We’ve always paid our staff in those situations if they’re unable to attend because they’re either, in this case, in the impacted zone, or as you know, we are cut off from Chilliwack on the highway and several of our teachers live in Chilliwack,” he said, adding the cost of hiring on-call teachers to fill in won’t come out of teachers’ pay, either.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, says that few districts have contract language that ensures teachers who can’t get to work due to an emergency will be paid.

But as of Wednesday, the union had not heard of any teachers cut off from work by the floods being denied pay, she said.

The district sent a letter to teachers on Tuesday that said any teacher unable to get to work should submit a request for unpaid leave. The Abbotsford Teachers’ Union posted a response on its website to say the district’s letter implied some teachers may not be paid.

The union “has asked the district to reconsider this direction and to instead assure teachers that they will be paid their usual salary irrespective of their ability to attend their worksite due to the ongoing emergency,” union local president Doug Smuland wrote.

The Tyee asked Smuland for an interview but did not receive a response.

Supt. Godden says the district has emergency procedures and policies for natural disasters and pandemics, developed in co-ordination with emergency services and well-rehearsed in schools through drills.

“Notwithstanding that we have those procedures in place, those disasters will not behave in a way that’s exactly how we’ve got them written down. We just have to be adaptive when we sit down to respond to them,” he said.

Mooring agrees that schools are generally well prepared for events like this. But due to climate change, in recent years natural disasters like the floods have been happening with a force and volume that no one is ready for.

“We’re really concerned as a federation around the impacts of climate change,” Mooring said. “That’s something that we really do need to address in B.C., we need to take it more seriously.”

The Tyee requested an interview with Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, but she was not made available. Instead, a ministry spokesperson emailed a statement echoing Godden's assurance that districts have emergency plans developed in co-ordination with emergency services.

"The Ministry of Education’s emergency management planning guidelines support schools, school districts and independent school authorities to plan, prepare, respond and recover using best practices and an all-hazards approach," the statement read.

"And school districts and independent schools have a safe school co-ordinator who helps to ensure emergency management best practices are followed."

Godden said the district does not stockpile food, bedding and other necessities at schools in case of disasters like an earthquake where they may be cut off from help, because the district’s main concern is to get children back to their parents.

“It is not a practical thing to do,” he said, because food and other perishables have a shelf life and must be replaced as they expire.

Mooring agreed, adding there isn’t enough room in some schools for counsellors and other education specialists to meet with students, let alone store emergency supplies for everyone in school.

But the second Abbotsford teacher who spoke to The Tyee said their school used to have classroom emergency “comfort kits” that included food, water, emergency foil blankets and glow sticks, as well as personalized letters from parents to their kids in case something happened during school hours.

For reasons unknown to the teacher, the kits were disassembled a few years ago. They held onto the foil blankets and glow sticks, and their school has also purchased flats of bottled water from Costco with enough bottles for each class.

* Story updated on Nov. 19 at 11:48 a.m. to include a ministry statement received after publication.  [Tyee]

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