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New Whistler middle school still top capital priority for SD48

Bus route frustrations not easily solved, superintendent says
The Sea to Sky School District is seeking more clarity around provincial health guidelines for school buses during COVID-19.

Construction of a new middle school in Whistler remains the No. 1 capital priority for the Sea to Sky School District (SD48), according to superintendent Lisa McCullough, but there are a number of steps to take before the province will fund it.

“The limiting factor to moving ahead right now is simply that we are not yet bursting at the seams. Because we have additional classrooms at Spring Creek, the ministry will expect us to deploy a number of strategies before they simply build a school,” McCullough told Whistler’s Committee of the Whole on Sept. 15.

Those strategies include a boundary review (which would redistribute students from the packed Myrtle Philip Community School, a preference for many parents, to Spring Creek Community School) or moving Grade 8s out of Whistler Secondary to better balance classroom space amongst the schools.

While SD48’s board of directors will continue to look at its options, a public consultation held in Whistler a few years back showed the plan to build a middle school “was the only one that could actually resolve the issue with our growing enrolment,” McCullough said.

“And we showed a number of scenarios that we could try, and the community overwhelmingly selected that option as their favourite when we did a survey afterward.”

Whistler schools added seven new elementary students this year, while Whistler Secondary has 23 additional students—but COVID-19 could have an effect on enrolment projections, too, McCullough said.

“We don’t know how many employees will be in the Whistler area; we don’t know how many of those will bring school-aged children,” she said.

“So I suspect it’s going to take a little longer than it would have to be contemplating that [middle school] build, simply because the ministry will want to see stable growth before they activate the kinds of millions of dollars they would need for a build.”

Those hoping for answers about recent changes to SD48 school bus routes in Whistler in light of COVID-19 will also have to wait.

The district has reduced density on its buses due to the pandemic, “which means that we are prioritizing those students who are eligible under the board’s policy,” McCullough said, adding that the board has no obligation to provide transportation.

Under the policy, students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 who live more than 3.2 kilometres from their attendance-area school are eligible for transportation, as are students in Grades 4 to 12 who live more than four kilometres away.

“My job is to get those eligible riders seats. Courtesy ridership is only allowed in the policy if there are seats available,” McCullough said, adding that the “hardest part” about the school-bus issue is unclear directions from the ministry.

While provincial guidelines say gatherings should be kept below 50 people and physical distance should be maintained, the school buses transport multiple learning cohorts above 50 students, McCullough said.

“So you would think we can’t add more kids to those buses, [but] then you’ll talk to the ministry and they’ll say, ‘Well it’s really about contact tracing, so go ahead and load the kids in,’” she said.

“Then I’m going to have very fearful families who are eligible, saying, ‘you’ve just compromised my child’s safety because you want to accommodate families that live two kilometres away.’

“So we still will work with public health to decide, it’s either safe or it isn’t safe to put the kids on the bus in this way, and I’m struggling to get a very clear answer right now, [but] I’m working on that.”

One alternative is to buy another school bus, but with no international program driving additional revenues, “the board has to be vey cautious about their finances right now,” McCullough said, adding that even if they could afford it, finding a driver is another challenge altogether.

“If I can get more bus drivers maybe I can get a couple of less expensive buses, but … we’ve been recruiting for bus drivers [in the north of the district] for months.”