When schools have to close: Fuel leaks, sewer floods push Nunavut students out
16 schools experienced unplanned closures 31 times over past 2 school years
This is the second 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 Part 3 in the coming weeks. Here is a link to Part 1 in the series.
Burst pipes, sewer flooding, a lack of heat and fuel leaks are forcing Nunavut’s aging schools to shut their doors to students.
Between September 2021 and June 2023, 16 schools experienced unplanned closures a combined 31 times, according to documents Nunatsiaq News received from the Department of Education.
That resulted in a total of 111.5 days of unplanned building closures across the territory.
Some of those closures averaged just one or two days, due to issues like community power outages or city water shortages. Others stretched on for several days or even weeks in order to fix major issues.
Fourteen schools closed during the 2021-22 school year due to a lack of power in the building, a lack of heat, a burst sprinkler pipe causing flooding, poor air quality, odour from a glycol leak, a diesel spill and a sewer flood, among other issues.
In 2023 alone, four schools were closed for a combined 81 days.
Igloolik’s Sivuniit School closed for 19 days from Dec. 24, 2022, to Jan. 30 because of a 1,200-litre fuel spill.
Leo Ussak Elementary in Rankin Inlet was closed for five days in early January and again for two days two weeks later, both times due to odour from a glycol leak.
A sewer flood closed Qaqqalik School in Kimmirut for six days in May.
In the most extreme case, Taloyoak’s Netsilik Ilihakvik building closed for 49 school days from Feb. 7 to April 17 of this year because of a 90-litre diesel spill in the school.
When a school building has to close unexpectedly, the department looks for other spaces that can be utilized for classrooms, said Education Minister Pamela Gross.
“We work to try and address the issue as soon as we can to ensure that students don’t have much time away from the classroom,” she said.
Sometimes, students take lessons on a rotation when a class can’t be accommodated in one room, or they take home learning packages.
During the Qaqqalik School closure, for example, Grade 11 and 12 high school students were taught at the Nunavut Arctic College campus next door and all other grades had home-learning packages, said Education Department spokesperson Krista Amey in an email to Nunatsiaq News.
‘Working in an unsafe environment’
However, there are limitations to this approach, said Justin Matchett, president of the Nunavut Teachers’ Association which represents around 900 teachers across the territory.
“Closures of this nature would definitely have an impact on the education of the students, and also on the ability of the teacher to perform their job,” Matchett said.
Teachers are frustrated at “the large expectations being put on them” to perform tasks during school closures, he said, while not receiving the proper tools to be successful in those situations.
“Unlike other areas in Canada that can rely on online learning during such a closure, we need to be realistic about limitations of online learning in Nunavut in many of our communities,” he said.
“Online learning is only going to be successful with adequate supplies of technology, bandwidth and parental support and guidance at home.”
Matchett said he’s also heard concerns from teachers who feel they’re “working in an unsafe environment.”
He said teachers will submit requests for repairs that they notice are needed in their schools, but issues are often addressed too slowly.
“In my experience in the school system, broken windows have always been fixed very quickly but things like broken cupboards, doors, carpets that people are tripping on and mould could take months to years to get fixed,” he said.
At Coral Harbour’s Sakku School, for example, groundwater beneath the school contributed to mould concerns.
Students who were attending Nunavut Arctic College at a building attached to the Sakku School moved out in March, after complaining of mould problems.
James Scott, a professor and microbiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said exposure to mould can cause allergy-like symptoms such as inflammatory reactions, sneezing, eye irritation or even difficulty breathing.
“As you might imagine, these are things in a learning environment that could substantially interfere with the ability to learn and the ability of a worker to work in that environment,” Scott said.
Sakku School is now on track to begin a $65-million, two-year renovation this fall.
The growing student population of many hamlets, and the added strain on aging buildings to accommodate them, is another concern that Matchett cites.
“It is concerning that schools have to be creative about where to put some classes in their schools,” he said.
Asked if she was aware of school safety concerns from the Nunavut Teachers’ Association, Education Minister Pamela Gross said she hadn’t heard of any.
She also said there are no concerns about mould at any other Nunavut schools that she is aware of.
In fact, Taloyoak’s Netsilik School has been flagged for mould concerns, according to CGS spokesperson Hala Duale.
“Mould was discovered in a wastewater tank crawlspace, isolated from the main school building,” in 25 square metres of unfinished drywall, Duale said.
“The main school area showed no presence of mould spores.”
A remediation process is scheduled for the summer 2024 to address the issue, she said.
Using a kitchen for student overflow
According to Sanirajak MLA Joelie Kaernerk, the hamlet’s Arnaqjuaq School has used a kitchen where meals are prepared as an alternative classroom.
That was on top of dealing with sewage problems, flooding in bathrooms, no master keys for the building and a commercial oven that sat uninstalled for five years.
“It hinders the education of the students, and more often than not shortens the length of time that the teacher will remain in the teaching profession in Nunavut,” Matchett said.
If school administrators had a more direct line of communication with the people making the decisions on where to prioritize maintenance, Matchett said, repairs “may move quicker.”
“When dealing with children, things that may not be deemed important or a priority for an office-type setting should really be addressed quickly,” he said.
“Schools are very high-traffic areas, used all day and then again in evenings and weekends. I do feel like they need to be prioritized when it comes to maintenance. When schools are closed, it is not the staff and students that feel it, but the entire community.”
Stay tuned: Part 3 of this series looks at possible long-term solutions for Nunavut’s school maintenance issues.