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Few answers, lots of angst at meeting on closed Sicamous school

Reopening Malakwa Elementary not an immediate option
Watch: Reopening Malakwa elementary is not an immediate option. That was the school district's message to parents Wednesday night as they continue to deal with the ongoing closure of a Sicamous school due to a mysterious smell.

At a community meeting in Malakwa on Wednesday night, it was clear that concerns about the abrupt closure of Parkview Elementary School have not gone away.

The Sicamous school was closed in September, on the recommendation of the health authority, due to a mysterious smell that has shown up when it rains.

The closure is raising concerns because it has lead to long bus rides and shortened school days for Parkview students bused to other schools.

READ MORE: Concerns raised in Sicamous over school’s sudden closure because of unexplained odour

At Wednesday’s meeting, the second called by the school district in as many weeks, North Okanagan-Shuswap School District officials didn’t have much new information for parents.

What the superintendent did say is that the school district is now aiming to move classrooms back into Parkview Elementary over the long weekend in November.

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However, Peter Jory cautioned he couldn’t make any promises as “there are a lot of unknowns.”

Malakwa parents unhappy with contingency plans after school closure
Malakwa parents unhappy with contingency plans after school closure

The district has yet to identify the cause of the odor despite a series of tests and support from outside professionals.

Jory said, in a letter to parents, the district is now planning to bring in “a backhoe to look at the present and past height of the water table to consider its possible impact.”

The district said the smell is not currently present, but to reopen the school it would need to find the source and fix it, or show that the issue was “transitory” and take steps to prevent it from returning.

There is no guarantee that can happen by mid-November.

“We are going to do everything we can to try and get back into Parkview and try to do that in a reasonable amount of time,” Jory said.

No clear time line for a Plan B

While the school district’s main focus appears to be getting kids back into Parkview, parents frustrated by the current interim fix pressed officials on when they will be moving forward on a Plan B if the Parkview situation can’t be resolved.

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The school district could not provide a clear timeline on when it might prioritize a Plan B.

The issue for parents is that while Parkview is closed, students are being bused to other schools. In some cases, this is drastically increasing their commutes as older children are being sent to schools in the Salmon Arm area.

A young student stood up in the meeting to share her experience.

“My bus ride to school had doubled and now I commute for one hour and 40 minutes each way,” she told officials.

“Because you shortened the school day, I’m on the bus for almost as long as I am in my classroom. I am missing out on my education.”

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That speech drew applause from the audience and an apology from Jory for the long commutes.

Parents don’t want those long school bus rides to continue once the snow flies, as they are concerned about the safety of winter highways.

One community member asked if the school district was going to wait till the end of October to work on another plan for winter.

READ MORE: Elementary school in Sicamous closed because of unpleasant, musty odour: school district

“Are we now looking at options in case this goes long term? There is no way that most of the people in this room are going to let a school bus go over that bridge [to Salmon Arm]; you will see semi trucks blocking the highway,” he told officials.
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“I’m not trying to be dramatic here, but I’ve lost many friends and family on that highway over the winters and I’m not letting a whole bus load of kids go over there for the entire winter.”

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“My concern is that we get so focused on making that happen at Parkview that we miss that window to make it happen on Plan B,” said another community member.

Jory told Wednesday night’s crowd he intends to get the alternative options in front of the school board as soon as possible, but didn’t commit to a date.

The superintendent said if, as it gets closer to mid-November, it looks like it’s not going to be possible to move students back to Parkview, “then we are going to go back to the board with some other options and we will have them a little more developed by then.”

Jory said the school days had originally been shortened to accommodate the commute because parents had expressed concerns about earlier bus times. However, he said that could be reassessed if parents are more concerned about losing class times than about long days.

School District considers Malakwa as a Plan B

What Malakwa parents have been pushing for, is for the school district to reopen a closed school in that community to keep kids closer to home.

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At a meeting last week, Jory all but ruled that out, saying because of the condition of the school he didn’t think the building was “viable.”

  • For more about Malakwa school, and an inspection done on Sept. 30, click here and here.

However, on Wednesday night, the school district seemed more open to that possibility after bringing in a consultant to take a look at the space, and what would need to be done to meet the requirements to re-establish a school there.

Jory said the list of needed fixes was long, but there were no deal breakers.

He also recognized the work community members had done independently to fix up the former school by mowing the lawn and clearing out weeds and debris.

READ MORE: Sicamous-area school district faces tough questions after smell closes school

“Some of these classrooms were, as far as I recall, about eyeball deep in storage. I don’t know what you did with it, but it’s gone. It’s all nice and bright and presentable,” Jory said.

“I can’t say thank you for doing the work because we are a union shop. We are probably going to get grievances if this kind of behaviour continues, but we were impressed.”

Moving classrooms to Malakwa is now listed as one possible Plan B if the problem persists, along with installing portables at the high school in Sicamous or renting alternative space in Sicamous.

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Another meeting with parents is expected to take place in late October, and the school district says it hopes to be able to provide an update to parents on the possibility of returning to Parkview in the next two weeks.