British Columbia

Students and staff at Vancouver school prepare to say goodbye to 104-year-old building

A presentation on the danger of earthquakes is helping students understand why 104-year-old Bayview Elementary — which is at high risk of total collapse — is being demolished and replaced by a new building.

Presentation on Nepal earthquake helps students understand why school must be demolished

Tai Buckley, Grade 6, holds a photo of a school in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

There's still more than six weeks before the school year ends, but at Vancouver's Bayview Elementary, packing has already begun.

Boxes sit haphazardly on the floor. Christmas lights and books compete for table space in an empty classroom.

That's because when the doors close this summer, they'll never open again. 

At 104 years old, the venerable brick building in Kitsilano is one of the oldest in B.C. — but it's also at high risk for total collapse in the event of an earthquake.

More than three dozen schools and annexes in Vancouver are also labelled high risk, according to the school board. 

Bayview's age and original construction mean it cannot be effectively upgraded, so, in the fall, the building — which has lived through two world wars and heard the footsteps of thousands of children running through its halls — will be torn down. 

Bayview Elementary School in Vancouver on May 3, just a few weeks before the 104-year-old building's doors will close for the last time. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Completely not safe'

Despite her attachment to the school, principal Birgitte Biorn acknowledges the danger. She describes Bayview as "a beautiful building that's completely not safe for our children." 

"If anything were to happen, any sort of seismic event, our school community would not be safe. And that's not OK," says Biorn, who has been at Bayview for two years.

She searches through a box for an old photo that used to hang in her office. 

"This is the basketball team from 1924," she says, holding up a black-and-white photo of a group of boys sitting primly for the camera.

Nepali earthquake

The decision to demolish the school has been hard for some kids and parents to comprehend, says Sara Shneiderman, who has a daughter in Grade 3.

Next year, students will study in temporary portables at Queen Elizabeth Elementary while a new Bayview Elementary is built on the old site. It's expected to be completed by 2021.

To help students understand the upheaval, over the next month they will hear a presentation about why Bayview has to come down, and the danger they'd face if they stayed.

Bayview Elementary principal Brigitte Biorn speaks to a class. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Shneiderman, an anthropologist, has seen first hand the destruction a massive earthquake can bring. She travelled to Nepal four years ago after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated buildings across the country — including more than 7,500 schools.

The presentation focuses on students at one school, Sundrawati Primary in the Dolakha district, to highlight just how catastrophic an earthquake can be.

Those Nepalese students are still without school facilities. Classes are taught in temporary buildings and outside on grass while they wait for a new school to be built.

Although Shneiderman appreciates that children in Vancouver have been lucky not to experience the trauma of an earthquake, she says Bayview students will share similar emotions to their Nepali peers when they leave their school.

"Kids here will be going to temporary accommodation at Queen Elizabeth school and will have the same sort of feeling of displacement," said Shneiderman.

Bayview has since become a sister school to Sundrawati Primary.

Bayview students learn about a school in Nepal that was demolished after an earthquake. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
 

'I guess it could happen here'

The presentation hasn't made anyone love Bayview any less but it appears to be making students realize just how vulnerable the old building would be in an earthquake.

Watching the presentation, Grade 6 student Luci Blythe said she was starting to understand why the school she loves so much has to come down. 

"This place is not completely earthquake proof. I guess it could happen here like in Nepal," she said.

Kai Haag, 11, said: "No matter how many drills you take, you can't really tell how devastating an earthquake is."

Meanwhile, 11-year-old Hutton Maliah is taking a philosophical approach to leaving Bayview.

"It's kind of upsetting leaving all these memories behind, but they're also coming with us," he said.

The B.C. government has budgeted $24 million for the Bayview Elementary rebuild.

Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary, which has also been labelled high risk in an earthquake, will also be replaced at a cost of $22.4 million.

Bayview students search for Nepal on a globe. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that there were 800 schools in Nepal, and most were damaged by the 2015 earthquake. In fact, there are more than 35,000 schools in Nepal, of which more than 7,500 schools were damaged in the quake.
    May 13, 2019 10:54 AM PT

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