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Schools out for Games

Proposal to close schools for Olympics prompts parents to conduct their own survey

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The parents of Myrtle Philip students will conduct their own survey following the Howe Sound School District’s proposal to close schools during the 2010 Olympics.

“I think we want to know what parents think,” Suzanne Thomas said Tuesday at the school’s monthly Parent Advisory Council meeting.

The school district announced Monday that it is proposing to reschedule spring break from March to Feb. 22-26 in 2010, to coincide with the last week of the Winter Olympics. As well the school board is proposing to close Whistler’s two elementary schools and secondary schools in Pemberton and Squamish for the week of Feb. 15-19, the first week of the Games. Whistler Secondary would be closed an additional week, starting Feb. 8, 2010.

“This proposal is based on information we have at the present time,” said board Chair Dave Walden.

That includes a survey of parents conducted at the end of the last school year, investigations by the board of past Olympic experiences, and consultations with Olympic stakeholders and security officials.

The results of the survey, which Walden described as “inconclusive” will be available to the public after the board’s Sept. 26 meeting.

The Myrtle Philip parents’ survey arose partly out of concerns that the school board’s survey lumped both high schools and elementary schools together.

If the results of the parents’ survey come back against closing the schools the Parent Advisory Council has the opportunity to come up with a new calendar — but it must be approved by both the school administration and the school board.

It’s likely a new calendar would involve extra bussing charges for the school board and other challenges, said school board trustee Chris Vernon-Jarvis, making it an unattractive option.

“We are still listening,” said Walden adding that the board wants feedback on the proposal before adopting it as the official calendar for the 2009-2010 school year.

The board is still working out how best to get the feedback, said Walden, but it’s likely it will be channeled through the PAC for each school as well as consultations with teachers and other employees at the schools.

School groups can consider the calendar and either agree that it works for the school or they can come up with an alternative calendar. Any new calendar would have to be endorsed by the school staff and principal and it would have to be proved that it would work for the school.

It is hoped that a final decision can be reached on the calendar in October, but if more time is needed for feedback then the deadline will be extended.

That was good news for Kathy Bonin, chair of the Spring Creek Elementary School PAC, which has already had its first meeting of the year and meets again Oct. 10.

“That deadline seems way too short,” she said.

Of most concern to parents, she said, was what was going to happen to the kids who were out of school while their parents will be working flat out to cater to a packed resort. In some cases employees have been told they cannot take holidays during the Olympic period.

“The big concern was the daycare issue,” she said.

Bonin said she was surprised to learn that the elementary schools were to close.

“Previously it sounded like (the board) was not going to touch the elementary schools,” she said. “So I was a little bit surprised by that.”

During discussions and pubic meetings last spring it became clear that the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games was interested in using high school space, but not the elementary schools.

Walden said challenges with logistical issues swayed the board to consider closing the elementary schools.

While he would not go into the details of what those issues were there were lengthy discussions last spring about how kids would get to school while hundreds of Olympic buses are on the road dropping off and picking up spectators, and how security would be dealt with.

Walden said the board was very aware of working parents’ concerns about childcare and there were discussions underway about what could be done to help, including what role the empty elementary school facilities may play in a solution.

“This is being discussed,” said Walden.

Added Vernon-Jarvis: “Parents have a part to play here.

“It is not a school responsibility, but having said that we recognize parents’ difficulty and we are prepared to be the centre for organizing this.

“Now that the decision is made we must all be involved enough to make sure that what we need happens.”

On the high school front, part of the decision to close was based on research and feedback, which suggested that students were unlikely to come to class when such a hallmark event is happening.

“One of our considerations for the secondary schools was that we could keep our schools open, but if the kids aren’t there are we serving the needs of the population?” said Walden.

“VANOC is going to be quite aggressively recruiting because then they won’t have to provide beds if they can get people up here, and from our point of view the Games will be an educational experience in itself.”

But concerns have been voiced about what the three-week break from Feb. 8 until Feb. 26 will mean for students writing provincial exams that year.

Whistler Secondary PAC chair Marilyn Creighton said she had received no feedback on the proposal from parents yet but that it would be on the agenda at the next meeting, Sept. 25.

Vernon-Jarvis said the matter has been looked at closely by the board and several options are being considered to make sure Howe Sound students do not lose out when it comes to the provincial exams.

“The Ministry of Education has said that it would be possible to provide exams after the event, in other words alternative exams,” he said.

“In principle we have to make the plans on what people say now and the government has said it may be possible that it could provide other exams. We shouldn’t feel there is only one exam written in stone and you can’t do anything about it.”

Alternately, said Vernon-Jarvis, the board is looking at adding blocks of time to the school day, and even extra days so that students cover all the material they need to for the June exams. The other provincial exams are held in either the last week of January or the first week of February.

District PAC chair Cathy Jewett said it’s important that the board keep in mind that parents have already stated clearly they do not support making up extra time by adding minutes to the school day.

“Parents have spoken out loud and clear that minutes do not equal days,” she said.

Jewett is also anxious to hear what role the Resort Municipality of Whistler will play as the school calendar issue unfolds.

It is that organization, said Jewett, which will be at the forefront of the decisions on what community facilities will be open and closed during the Games and what child care options might be available.

“The municipality is the organization that is holding the answers to many of our questions,” she said.

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