Highlight Aug 30, 2023 – 8:30 am EDT
‘Major safety concern’: Nunavut’s aging schools spur thousands of maintenance requests
Reports from 2022 include fuel spills, ‘extremely dangerous’ doors and glycol seeping through floor
This story is the first of a three-part series examining the state of Nunavut’s school infrastructure and how it impacts the delivery of education in the territory. Watch for parts two and three in the coming weeks.
Nunavut’s students are heading back to school for a new year, but the buildings they learn in face a myriad of maintenance issues that have, in some cases, led to injury.
Work order requests obtained by Nunatsiaq News via Nunavut’s access to information law show that between January and December 2022, staff at the territory’s 45 schools filed a total of 3,907 requests with the Department of Community and Government Services for structural repairs, building maintenance and upkeep of school grounds.
The requests range from simple maintenance issues like leaky faucets and snow removal to major problems like fuel leaks.
More than a dozen schools experienced problems specific to doors with exterior locks that don’t work, leading to security issues and even break-ins.
“Three hallway doors were installed incorrectly when school was built. The doors are installed so that when closed they trap students in a section of the corridor with no means of escape — this is extremely dangerous as it poses a major safety concern during an emergency,” reads one service request, made in June at Paatsaali High School in Sanikiluaq.
In Naujaat’s Tusarvik School, a November 2022 request notes “the doors are slamming and squeezing the fingers of our primary school students. We have asked CGS several times to help us slow the doors down because they are dangerous.”
“We would like the exterior doors to close more slowly. We are concerned because a child’s finger was nearly severed when it got caught in the entrance door,” reported a staff member in June 2022 at the Inuujaq School in Arctic Bay.
Nunatsiaq News has reached out to CGS for an update on whether these problems have been fixed, but did not receive a response by press time.
At Joamie School in Iqaluit, “there is a large gap between the step and the wall. A student was holding the door and their leg slipped down and she hurt her leg,” a request from June 2022 reads. This issue was fixed within days of the incident, according to work-order information obtained by Nunatsiaq News.
Other persistent issues listed on the request sheets cite little or no heat in classrooms, toilets that won’t stop flushing, no running water in fountains and faucets and numerous cases of fuel and glycol leaks.
“There must be glycol leaking in the classroom. It is seeping under the linoleum and coming up through the seams,” a staff member wrote in May 2022 about Rachel Arngnammaktiq Elementary School in Baker Lake.
Break-ins, weather and vandalism
Hala Duale, a spokesperson for Community and Government Services, said the department usually gets 1,500 to 2,300 school maintenance requests per year.
“Receiving 4,000 service requests is notably high,” she said in an email to Nunatsiaq News.
The hamlets with the most school work requests in 2022 were Arviat (675), Rankin Inlet (543), Iqaluit (351), Baker Lake (335) and Gjoa Haven (245).
The high number of work order requests in 2022 is largely due to how old many of Nunavut’s schools are, Duale explained.
“Aging infrastructure in Nunavut has contributed to a surge in maintenance issues across the board,” she said.
Ten of Nunavut’s 45 schools were built between 1968 and 1979. Of those, only Quluaq School in Clyde River and Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit received renovations in the past 20 years (Quluaq twice, in 2002 and 2014, and Inuksuk in 2008), according to documents Nunatsiaq News received from the Department of Education.
The other eight schools haven’t had extensive renovations since at least the late 1990s.
“Despite schools being designed for a 25-year span, community-intensive use accelerates wear,” said Duale.
“Maintenance remains unpredictable, influenced by wear and tear, break-ins, weather, and vandalism.”
Education Minister Pamela Gross said Community and Government Services is mandated to do regular maintenance checks of schools to see where repairs are needed and identify infrastructure issues to be addressed.
She said Education provides funding to CGS’s Maintenance and Operations Division to have the work done “in a timely manner.”
Millions for maintenance
The Government of Nunavut spends approximately $18.1 million on school maintenance alone each year with another $11.5 million allocated for utilities.
That’s about $121.75 per square metre for schools to be maintained, according to Gross.
For example, Kugaaruk’s Arviligruaq Ilinnarvik School is 4,000 square metres, which gives it an operation and maintenance cost of $487,000 annually.
“In terms of speed, it would be really nice to see more schools getting renovated and new schools being built, but the reality is we only have a limited budget,” she said.
And renovating schools doesn’t come cheap. Coral Harbour’s Sakku School will begin an extensive $65-million, two-year renovation this fall that will see it stripped down to the studs.
Its last renovation was in 2007, but that was poorly done due to cost estimates coming way over budget during the bidding process, said Gross.
“We can only work within the realms of what we have when tenders go out,” she said, adding that roughly a quarter of the Government of Nunavut’s annual budget is spent on the Education department.
Even when maintenance issues at schools are addressed and steps are taken to remedy them, the unique challenges of fixing and constructing buildings in the North means even simple repairs can take months or years to fix.
“It is very challenging to build in the North,” said Clarence Synard, president and CEO of NCC Development Ltd., which specializes in design and construction projects in Nunavut.
Obstacles include the high cost of shipping materials, the limited time frame when sealifts can travel, limits to how much space can be reserved on a sealift, gravel runways in many small hamlets limiting the kind of aircraft that land, short construction seasons, and the high cost of packaging materials for transportation and storage once they reach a hamlet.
One recent example of that is Sanirajak’s Arnaqjuaq School which, for nearly a full year from May 2022 to April 2023, did not have a functioning fire sprinkler system.
Community and Government Services ordered parts to fix it, but when they arrived the problem proved more complicated and the school had to wait longer for additional parts to arrive in the hamlet.
Add to that the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on shipping, labour and expenses, Synard said.
“Those costs translate over to the contractors and building owners or homeowners. That lack of infrastructure really becomes challenging.”
Keep an eye for Part 2: When schools have to close: Fuel leaks, sewer floods push Nunavut students out.