Schools around the province are scrambling to find space for students for the 2017/18 school year, while closed schools sit empty. The Greater Victoria School District is not immune: Over the past 15 years, it has closed seven schools.
With the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling, smaller classes must be created, which means more classroom spaces are needed. Enrolment in Victoria is expected to increase by roughly 2,000 students over the next 10 years. When faced with these factors, why are schools being packed to more than 100 per cent capacity?
Despite this historic ruling that will force the government to provide adequate funding to ensure that our schools have better teacher-to-student ratios, Victoria children are still missing out. The Greater Victoria School District recently announced the addition of 12 portables to address space requirements for the upcoming school year.
What’s more, multipurpose and specially designed rooms for music and other important educational programs are being repurposed into classrooms.
Students experience a significant negative impact when placed in overcrowded, under-resourced school environments. This has both physical and mental-health considerations. When schools are filled beyond capacity, there are insufficient bathroom facilities and indoor common areas.
Learning environments and opportunities for students are jeopardized when purpose-built spaces for arts and trades are reclaimed to make extra classrooms. Public health is compromised when more bodies are crammed into small spaces, and, in our district, these problems will be exacerbated due to the recent decision to reduce custodial staff.
Moreover, with student anxiety levels skyrocketing, and the dismantling of our specially designed programs for students with significant educational needs, how will schools accommodate the need for safe, quiet spaces for students with learning or anxiety-based needs?
In addition to the health and safety risks of filling schools beyond capacity are the risks to communities when we remove the social connection of neighbourhood schools. When neighbourhood schools are closed, a whole multitude of challenges arise for families.
The obvious inconvenience is transportation. In addition to the strain this adds to parents with regard to scheduling and cost practicalities, it brings with it some less obvious negative impacts.
For example, when students can’t walk to school, they are missing the chance to learn measured and growing independence in finding their way to a known, nearby location. As well, they miss out on daily physical activity, practising unsupervised relationship-building and management with their peers, and transition time between the home and school environments.
Because the government is funding only what it has been mandated to pay, districts are still being forced to make hard decisions that are not in the best interests of students. Schools that were closed under the B.C. Liberal government can be reopened.
According to the superintendent of schools in Prince George School District, reopening closed schools “is the most educationally sound solution and fiscally sound solution.” Locally, if the school district began by reopening Richmond School, it would eliminate the need for portables at three neighbourhood schools that are currently planned to exceed capacity. Prince George has made the choice to reopen schools and redefine its catchment areas; it’s time for Victoria to follow suit.
A whole generation of children suffered through underfunded, overcrowded classrooms, and now, after 15 years of struggle and a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, we have the chance to prove that we value education in British Columbia, and that we are willing to invest in our children’s future.
Jason Gammon is a teacher in the Greater Victoria School District and current president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.