Vancouver schools need to be better designed for the warming climate

Hilary Thomson and the Vision Vancouver School Board team are committed to building climate ready schools for our warming world. Read her op-ed in the Daily Hive here.

The 2021 heat dome contributed to over 600 deaths in British Columbia. In a perfect world, or even just a slightly better one, schools could be a place of respite on extremely hot days or other emergencies.

However, in a heat dome, or even just a relatively warm day, Vancouver’s schools are often the last place you want to be. Vancouver schools closed during the heat dome because many don’t have proper cooling systems.

Vancouver schools simply don’t meet the needs of students and teachers today. Many of them are not accessible. When my daughter, a wheelchair user, started school, there was no elevator. While she was able to get to her classroom, she did not see the inside of a library for an entire year except when a very kind teacher carried her upstairs. It was another two years before she had the dignity of an accessible washroom stall.

We also have more than 50 schools in Vancouver that are at high risk of complete or partial structural failure in the event of an earthquake. Thousands of Vancouver children, and the people who work with them, are at risk every time they walk through their school doors.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel. New schools and major renovations are funded through capital budgets, and as most parents (and trustees) know, capital funding for schools has been chronically underfunded for many years. And the province’s achingly slow seismic program provides little relief. It is not surprising, then, that most Vancouver schools are in various states of disrepair.

Vision Vancouver trustees have been a key voice in bringing this issue to the forefront. In 2005, the government promised seismic upgrades would be complete by 2020. However, in 2022, fewer than half of Vancouver schools have been completed. Despite Vancouver’s aging infrastructure, the Ministry has not funded any new schools for Vancouver since the 2019/2020 school year.

At Vision Vancouver, we believe that the Vancouver School Board can get creative. For instance, the Vancouver School Board owns land assets like Kingsgate Mall that have the potential to raise money through long-term leases. But we can’t do it alone. That is why my fellow Vision Vancouver school board candidates and I are calling on the provincial and municipal governments to make a commitment to improving the state of our schools.

The city of Vancouver already passed a motion to expedite permit approvals for schools, and they are working on an accessibility strategy. Right now, renovations for seismic reasons do not require retrofitting for accessibility, fire safety or improvements to heating and cooling systems, but the city could change that. The city could also be proactive in planning for new, modern schools when it approves housing developments.

The province also needs to do more. It is time to make a massive investment in school infrastructure, with a concrete plan for safe and accessible schools by 2030. The government recently announced a surplus of over a billion dollars. The Auditor General says it is likely many times more than that. It is time we invested in our kids by making sure our schools are safe in emergencies, have modern heating and cooling systems, and are accessible for people with disabilities.

It is shameful that in 2022, children are still learning in buildings that do not meet these basic requirements. I have been fighting for safety and accessibility for my daughter since she started school, and as parents and voters we should demand it for all children. As your school trustee, that’s what I — and my fellow Vision Vancouver candidates — will do.

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Hilary Thomson, who is a lawyer, the mother of four children, and a past member of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Committee’s Facilities Committee. She is a school trustee candidate with Vision Vancouver.

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