Busses across the region are unable to travel through evacuation alert areas. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.

Wildfires delay elementary schools’ opening

Bus routes stalled due to evacuation alerts

While most students in School District 27 are headed back to school on Sept. 5, some are still unsure of when their first day of school will be.

Horse Lake Elementary School is one of those. Because the school sits in an evacuation alert area, the school district has decided to keep it closed.

“The challenge comes when we have students in a building and we are responsible for those students and their safety,” says School District 27 Board Chair Tanya Guenther.

“If that alert is changed to an order at any time we may not have the ability to transport those students safely to an area within that time frame. Most areas under alert are advised to be prepared to evacuate within thirty minutes and we might not have enough buses available in all our locations to try and transport students.”

She says another concern is keeping students united with their families.

“In some instances, there’s a concern of us taking students one direction and parents being sent in another direction, so we want to make sure that students are able to be in a safe place and be as close to their families as possible in the event that something changes and there is an evacuation.”

The district is putting out a daily notice at around 11 a.m. that updates which schools are open or closed. If an alert comes off before that time, the school will open the next morning. If the alert is lifted later in the day, the school will wait to reopen, says Superintendent Mark Wintjes.

In the meantime, Wintjes says there are staff in the schools on alert. That includes Horse Lake Elementary.

“We’re working with the administration to work with the teachers that stay in close connection with the parents. There is nothing wrong with a parent going in with their child to the school that is under alert and picking up materials to then work on at home,” he says.

For high school students affected in the Chilcotin, he says the rural secondary program that runs online will be starting as of Sept. 11. which would allow them to work from home.

At this point, Guenther says they’re not sure what the effects will be on the school year for students.

“It’s a day to day situation that is being monitored,” she says. “We don’t know at this point whether it’s a few more days or whether it is going to be a longer term scenario, so at this point, we are taking it day by day.”

She says school district staff are working on it.

“As time goes on, considerations will be given for different ways of addressing the lost time at school.”

Horse Lake isn’t the only school in the area affected by evacuation alerts. The school district isn’t running buses through areas under evacuation alerts, even if the road is open.

Instead, parents need to plan alternate transportation and have an approved safety plan if they want their children to attend school.

The school board is doing what they can to help. They’re offering temporary assistance to “qualified parents/guardians who are experiencing interrupted bus service due to the wildfires,” according to district.

Otherwise, they’re in conversation with the regional districts to ask them to take another look at their evacuation alert areas. Wintjes says that 70 Mile is one of those areas.

“We don’t want to put any pressure on them to do that, but if they’ve got some time and energy to take another look at alert areas, that might assist us.”

Once students get back into schools there’s more to take into consideration.

“What we’re preparing anyways for kids that are already back, is to make sure any student that might be exhibiting some stress to make sure they are referred to councillors and to work with other individuals that might be able to help them work through those pieces, given the trauma that does come in when you’ve been out of your home or possibly even having your home burnt.”

Wintjes says he’s also had offers from other districts for additional councillors if there is a need.

“We’re just looking how big [that need] is. If it’s big at all, it might be more for the staff and the parents,” he says. “Students will be quite resilient to it. We’re sure there will be some that might need that closer attention.”

There are resources available at www.sd27.bc.ca for parents, teachers and students on how to support youth.

“[These] are other resources parents and teachers can tap into regarding some of the responses that you can have to deal with wildfire recoveries after a wildfire, which we’re hoping will assist not just the parents but the teachers and administration as well.”

“We’re trying to make the best of what we can under the current situation and are hopefull that as more order and alerts are lifted and recinded … that that trend continues and we’re able to get schools open and all of our students back in schools,” says Guenther.

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