Two Fort McMurray schools might not reopen this fall

Two Fort McMurray schools might remain closed in September because of low student enrolment and fears that wildfire construction zones surrounding schools pose a risk to students.

‘If we are going to rebuild a community let’s start with the littlest people that make it a community’

Two labourers work in the shadow of Fort McMurray's Father Beauregard Roman Catholic elementary school, Tuesday. The local Catholic school board hasn't decided whether building will reopen in September 2017. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Two Fort McMurray schools might remain closed in September amid worries about low student enrolment and fears that wildfire construction zones surrounding schools pose a risk to students.

The city's public and Catholic school boards said they haven't decided if they will reopen Beacon Hill public and Father Beauregard Catholic in September.

The opening of Elsie Yanik Catholic will be delayed till 2018 because the building, which was under construction, was damaged in May's wildfire.

A spokesperson for the public school district said in an email the district does not want to alarm parents and its board has made no decisions to close or re-open Beacon Hill public. The district is surveying parents to see how many students will return to Beacon Hill public school if opened.

On Tuesday evening, parents attended an emotional meeting where they heard Father Beauregard, located in Abasand, one of Fort McMurray's wildfire disaster zones, might remain closed for another year.

Chris Brien attended the meeting and said he wasn't happy with the news and wants certainty his son will return to his normal routine. 

"My son lost his world, his life," Brien said. "Just up the street was his house, his street and his school."

(L to R) Mallory Hood and Chris Brien attended Tuesday night's informational meeting about the status of Father Beauregard school after the wildfire. Brien said he wants the school in one Fort McMurray's hardest hit wildfire communities to open in September 2017. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Father Beauregard, along with Christina Gordon in Timberlea, Beacon Hill Public School and Good Shepherd Catholic School, did not open in September 2016 after the wildfire.

The wildfire devastated whole communities and prompted to the evacuation of the city of 90,000. Although the municipality hasn't released a final number, it estimates many residents have not returned.

Both the public and Catholic school boards decided to keep some schools closed because they couldn't be cleaned in time for the school year that started in September 2016. Back then, administrators were worried about the mental and physical safety of students going to school in wildfire disaster zones.

Keeping students safe

Catholic school district superintendent George McGuigan said all his schools are clean and ready to open this September. However McGuigan is still concerned about students going to Father Beauregard when the neighbourhood is an active construction zone.

"We are working with the municipality," McGuigan said. "There are issues with children experimenting and falling into basements. There would be heavy construction right across the street from the school."

Parents filled half the gym at Father Turcotte Catholic school as the school district updated them on the possibility their school in Abasand might remain closed during the next academic year. (David Thurton/ CBC)

An initial Catholic school board survey shows 51 of the 288 students at Father Beauregard would be returning.

"We are not doing the children any favours putting them in a school where the population is so low," McGuigan said.

Parents at Tuesday night's meeting said the school district shouldn't use the survey as a true predictor of enrolment. Many said parents wouldn't commit to returning to Abasand unless there was a school.

"If we are going to rebuild a community, let's start with the littlest people that make it a community," Brien said. "Otherwise, it's just a bunch of grown-ups hanging out."

Ten year-old Gavin Johnson is one of Father Beauregard's students. He misses his old school and wants to return. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Gavin Johnson, 10, attended the meeting with his mom and younger brother. The Grade 5 student said he missed his old school and friends and hopes Father Beauregard will open again.

"I trust the school board. So I am hoping to get a yes," Gavin said.

As many as three schools in Fort McMurray could still remain closed after the Fort McMurray wildfire. The Elsie Yanik Catholic School was scheduled to open in 2017 but it was damaged after the wildfire. It won't open until 2018. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The Catholic school board expects to make a decision in early May. The public board will make its decision at a board meeting on March 22.

Although Father Beauregard's fate is uncertain, the Catholic school district will reopen Good Shepherd, its school in Beacon Hill, in September 2017.

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