April 14, 2024
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By Erin Brohm

Northeastern Manitoba First Nation’s school has ‘been condemned a couple times already’: education director

Mould, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of space are prompting calls for a new high school in Garden Hill First Nation.

The challenges come after officials in the northeastern Manitoba First Nation decided to have students repeat a grade in the 2021-22 school year, after the previous year was determined to be a loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And last year, students were forced out of the high school for several weeks due to mould found in a wing of the junior high.

Dayna McDougall, a Grade 9 student, was recently elected chief of Garden Hill First Nation High School’s student council.

“After I heard my name, I was just all shocked … my heart just popped out. I was actually happy about it,” he said.

McDougall said he wants to help improve students’ mental health by bringing in more sports tournaments and creating more space within the school. He said when mould was discovered last year, all of the school’s students were impacted.

“It’s kinda rough…. We had to move to elementary school to go to school there, and having to sit in small desks. It wasn’t OK with us,” he said.

“This year, they brought us back here [to the high school].”

The mould remains, but is contained in a condemned hallway with four unusable classrooms.

“It’s kind of sad, because they’re having to combine the students [in classrooms]…. There’s a ton more students than last year,” said McDougall.

That’s in part because of the addition of Grade 6 students this year at Garden Hill’s high school, as the elementary school building was beyond capacity.

The fly-in community, about 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has approximately 1,200 kindergarten to Grade 12 students enrolled in its elementary and high schools.

“We don’t have that much space, so it’s getting overcrowded,” said Grade 9 student Joshua “Joy” McPherson, who was recently elected school councillor.

Some high school classes, such as the nutrition and textiles classes, are doubling up in one room. The school cafeteria was converted to a classroom space. There is no space for a music room.

“I want the mould to be removed so we can finally have classes that won’t be cluttered with students,” said Daisy “Viper” Harper, who was recently elected vice-chief of the student council.

Garden Hill’s students are still catching up after repeating a grade last year — a decision made by the former education director — after classes were completely cancelled during the pandemic and attempts at remote learning attempts were unsuccessful.

“Because we’re on a reserve, Wi-Fi is very slow. Zoom classes — they were not a thing that would happen,” said McPherson.

The prolonged time away from other students was hard for everyone.

“It was very difficult, not seeing everyone for how many years. And I feel like people’s mental health was damaged during that time,” said McPherson.

The principal of Garden Hill high school says renovation work is underway on the shuttered hallway, but it’s not happening fast enough. He worries senior students will leave and not come back because of the lack of space in the high school.

“We do the best we can with the number of classrooms that we have within the building, but that’s a big concern that I have,” said Peter Little, noting one high school science class has 36 students.

“Priority would be to get a new school…. I don’t know if it’s worth fixing the school,” he said.

The school’s operations and maintenance manager said water leaks down from the roof, causing the mould.

The building was constructed without eavestroughs, an overhang or proper drainage, said Gedeon Dan. Despite several repairs, he said the leakage persists.

“The roof is the problem,” he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said Garden Hill First Nation receives $1.9 million annually for operation and maintenance of the school, as well as $2.2 million in annual base capital funding for the band. An additional $174,000 was provided to upgrade the school’s ventilation system last year, the department spokesperson said.

The federal government continues to meet with First Nation leadership to study existing conditions and “discuss a path forward for new or upgraded infrastructure,” the Indigenous Services spokesperson wrote.

But renovating the school isn’t a solution, says Garden Hill education director Kurt Mason.

“Our school’s been condemned a couple times already…It’s just a Band-Aid solution, what we’re doing — renovating, renovating,” said Mason.

But he said he’s optimistic after recently learning the school will get four portable classrooms through federal funding — something he says will “help a lot.”

McDougall, the student council chief, says he would like to stay to do his Grade 10 year in the community, but he plans to finish his high school in Winnipeg. Beyond that, he says he may one day return to run for chief of his community.

Grade 9 student McPherson hopes he can help improve students’ health while he’s still in high school. The day after he was elected school councillor, one small change already happened.

“The cafeteria is now being used to eat in. And that warms my heart.”

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