Brampton school displaced by fire finds new home, but parents concerned about impact on kids

Some parents are concerned about sending their kids to a new location after a fire damaged St. Leonard school in Brampton in May. A nearby school will host its students and staff temporarily when classes resume in September amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. Leonard students will attend nearby St. Rita. Schools to operate separately under 1 roof

Nicole Conte-Senra’s son Sebastian is a St. Leonard Elementary School student who will attend St. Rita Elementary School when in-class learning resumes in September. 'I’m a little scared of the way he is going to transition into this new environment,' she says. (Grant Linton/CBC)

As Nicole Conte-Senra gets ready to send her three kids back to school in September, she has many questions about what the upcoming year will be like amid the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly how her youngest son will adjust to being in an entirely different building shared with another school.

Conte-Senra's son Sebastian, who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, will enter Grade 2 as a student of St. Leonard Elementary School in Brampton.

Like many parents, she and her husband had to think long and hard about sending him to school due to the novel coronavirus. But he and his classmates will also have to attend St. Rita Elementary School, approximately 4.5 km northwest from their usual location, because St. Leonard was damaged in a fire in May.

"It's heartbreaking what happened to St. Leonard. That's stressful on its own," said Conte-Senra, who also attended the school when she was younger. 

"But as a parent of a child with special needs and St. Rita being a new environment — a new school with new faces, I'm a little scared of the way he is going to transition to the new environment." 

At the time of the fire, Peel police estimated it would take 12 to 18 months to repair at a cost of as much as $8 million. Three teenage boys have been charged with breaking and entering as well as arson causing damage to a property. 

St. Rita Elementary School, which has 743 students, anticipates having 10 empty classrooms and six vacant portables for temporary use by St. Leonard staff and students. 

While the schools will occupy the same physical space, they will act as two separate entities with separate entrances, classrooms and offices.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board says it has a "long history" of schools hosting other schools temporarily in their buildings. 

"Of course, there's stress and anxiety about having to go to a strange facility," said Bruce Campbell, general manager of communications for the board.

"There's a lot of questions but I think once you get in [to St. Rita] and we normalize the activities, we're hopeful things will calm down a bit." 

St. Rita Elementary School will host the entire student and staff population of St. Leonard Elementary School in September. While the schools will occupy the same physical space, they will act as two separate entities with separate entrances, classrooms, and offices. (Grant Linton/CBC)

The schools will also keep their different start and end times: St. Leonard will start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:00 p.m. while St. Rita will start at 9:15 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m.

The use of common areas, such as the library, gymnasium and outdoor play spaces will be used at different times by the schools. 

"We're confident that we'll be able to operate both schools as we would in a host situation. But things are different, no doubt [because of COVID-19]," said Campbell.

He said one of the current unknown factors that will affect planning for the school year is how many parents will be keeping their kids home for e-learning. They're awaiting results from a survey sent to parents. 

Parents weigh pros and cons

While Jacy Peck is thankful St. Rita is opening its doors to  St. Leonard, she has decided to keep her daughters, who will be entering Grade 2 and junior kindergarten, at home for the school year.

"It's hard to pinpoint what precisely prompted my decision but I think it was both the pandemic, because my oldest has asthma, and that our children would be attending school with another population," she said.

Jacy Peck, whose daughters attend St. Leonard Elementary School, will keep them at home for the upcoming school year because one daughter has asthma and she’s concerned about both schools using common spaces. (Grant Linton/CBC)

Peck is mostly concerned about the use of shared common spaces and not knowing what the protocols will be concerning wiping down bathrooms and hallways. 

Given her daughter's health concerns, Peck feels fortunate she's in a position to stay at home with her daughters and help them follow St. Leonard's online learning.

For their part, Conte-Senra and her husband felt the benefits of in-class learning outweighed the risks of sending Sebastian to school. He is integrated into a full regular classroom and works with a special education teacher under a modified curriculum. His parents felt face-to-face interaction with teachers and staff who already know him will benefit him more than online learning.

But It will be the first time he will attend a different school from his older siblings, who will be in an extended French program at another school. To get Sebastian familiar with St. Rita, the family has been driving past the school regularly to show him where he'll be spending his next year.

"We've been telling him 'we know it may be scary and it may be new,' but also telling him that all his teachers and classmates are going to be there." 

Conte-Senra is hoping to have a conversation with St. Leonard staff in the coming weeks about having Sebastian start with half days for the first few weeks and gradually transition to full-days. 

"The good thing is with steady transition and with a great routine, Sebastian gets it," said Conte-Senra, whose family has been practising mask-wearing and frequent handwashing with Sebastian.

"We're trying to get that routine drilled into him so come September, he'll remember these things and he'll be ok."

St. Leonard school damage being reviewed

Campbell said there's been "no real movement" on the structure of St. Leonard Elementary School as it continues to be assessed by the insurance adjuster.

The Board hopes to find out next month what the full scope and worth of the damage is and will determine next steps for the building, and how long St. Leonard students will be housed at St. Rita.

"Everything sort of predicates on what we can do with the existing facility," said Campbell. 

St. Leonard Elementary School in Brampton was damaged in a fire in May and at the time, Peel police estimated it would take 12 to 18 months to repair at a cost of as much as $8 million. (Grant Linton/CBC)

About the Author

Sannah Choi is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Toronto. She started as a TV reporter in her hometown at CBC Ottawa and has since worked on shows like Power and Politics, Ottawa Morning, Here and Now, and Metro Morning. She enjoys exploring her neighbourhood in Toronto's west end with her husband and son.


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