Brokenhead students return to class after concerns over air quality triggered evacuation

By Maggie Macintosh

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The long-awaited resumption of face-to-face learning in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation is being met with sighs of relief across the community, 40 days after an air-quality alarm triggered an evacuation of the local public school and sent 11 people to emergency rooms.

“I’m just excited that they’re back to some level of normalcy; we have our students in different locations throughout their community, as temporary school rooms,” Chief Gordon Bluesky told the Free Press.

Sergeant Tommy Prince School reopened partially Tuesday to allow for instruction in spaces that have been deemed safe by building inspectors.

With remediation efforts underway elsewhere, makeshift classrooms have been set up in the First Nation’s recreation centre, community hall and alternative education building, among other sites in the community located about 70 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Bluesky said students, parents and educators alike are welcoming the development after weeks of uncertainty.

Following a lengthy testing process, which he attributed to the fact leaders had to wait for the arrival of results from a Toronto-based lab, the chief said there will be a deep clean of the building and mould abatement. A cost estimate was not available Tuesday.

School leaders sent students and staff home early on Jan. 13 amid serious concerns over pollution inside the nursery-to-Grade-9 building.

Since then, children and youth have missed a total of 25 full school days, or 13 per cent, of all instructional days on Manitoba’s 2022-23 academic calendar.

Staff and students reported bouts of fatigue, nausea and related symptoms leading up to the sudden dismissal, which happened shortly after classes resumed following the winter holidays.

Shared Health confirmed 11 people, including staff and students, sought medical attention in Winnipeg and Interlake-Eastern hospitals and were treated and released the same day.

Chasity Simard, who has juggled caregiving, work and home schooling, said her daughter was ecstatic about being able to get out of their house and see her friends in a satellite classroom Tuesday.

“It was a mix of emotions, not knowing what was going on,” said the mother of two, the oldest of whom is enrolled in Grade 3.

There was early confusion over whether carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide was of concern in the public school run by the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.

A series of letters issued to parents, however, indicate unusually high levels of CO2 prompted the initial shutdown and inspectors later determined an outdated mechanical ventilation system and mould are to blame for the building’s air-quality concerns.

Educational assistants began dropping off homework packages, not unlike those distributed to families during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, earlier this month.

In a letter to families late last week, education director Wendell Sinclair outlined the reopening plans and acknowledged the closure’s negative impact on Brokenhead.

“Safety has always been the priority, which caused everyone involved to be extra careful in identifying all potential problems and putting into place the best possible solutions,” Sinclair wrote in a letter dated Friday.

Bluesky said there is a new acting principal at the school, but he declined to comment on whether the former leader’s departure is connected to the air-quality issues.

The chief said he continues to advocate for federal funding for a new school to be constructed in place of the existing facility, which was built in three stages starting in 1985.

Matthew Gutsch, a spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, said discussions about funding for a new school in Brokenhead are ongoing.

Maggie Macintosh is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.


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