School closes due to ongoing water issues

By Janice Christie, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
January 22 2020

SHEET HARBOUR – Parents are frustrated by persistent water issues at Duncan MacMillan High School in Sheet Harbour. Students were sent home on Wednesday, Jan. 15 because of no running water in the school, which houses 294 students and staff. Intermittent interruptions in water service in the 58-year-old building have been ongoing for the past two years.

Since early December there have been three days with no water, but students were only sent home on the most recent day. Parents say there has been no satisfactory explanation from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) as to the cause or a solution to the problem.

Colleen Martin has three children who attend the school. "When I called to express my concern I was told, 'If you feel your children are not safe or are in an unhealthy environment....go get them.' So I did."

Martin says, "I'm frustrated as it seems there is no communication amongst HRCE, DMHS and parents."

Parents are notified by e-mail when school closures take place or by a phone call list, which Martin says is not always updated.

"The current issue is either the pump or availability of water. Whatever it is they need to get it fixed. It's 2020. There really should be running water. Our concerns are passed back and forth between the principal and HRCE. Who has the authority to make decisions while our children sit in a school with no washrooms and sinks to wash their hands?”

Doug Hadley, coordinator, communications services, says the HRCE provides Duncan MacMillan with drinking water.

“The school draws its non-potable water from a reservoir that is filled by a well,” he says. “On Wednesday morning, the reservoir was not filling. When it was determined that repairs would take longer than first anticipated, the HRCE made the decision to close the school for the day. The school was closed at 11 a.m. There are many circumstances to consider when deciding whether a school needs to be closed for the day. In this case, not having non-potable water to supply the school for the entire day was the reason for the closure. We have had issues with the plumbing system this year but this was the first time we felt it was necessary to close the school.”

Hadley noted that Duncan MacMillan is closing at the end of this school year and “we are excited to be opening the new Marine Drive Academy in September.”

He said repairs to the water system were completed Wednesday evening and the school re-opened on Thursday.

“We apologize to families for the inconvenience caused by Wednesday’s early closure.”

Heather Josey has two daughters at DMHS. "I am in support of the students and staff,” she says. “I feel the current situation is that they function in a building under a 'good enough' attitude. Quick fixes are not the solution. The pump has become a long-term issue. HRCE needs to fix it.

“Currently it's as though having 'access' to a washroom and hand sanitizer in the classrooms is enough. It is not."

Josey's six-year-old has asthma. "If my daughter becomes ill from unsanitary conditions she's often out of school for a week. That's unacceptable."

Bottled drinking water has, for two decades, been delivered to the school due to poor water quality. Recently the drinking water has been used for flushing.

“The conditions are unsanitary,” says Josey. “HRCE must remember we are part of HRM. They must do their due diligence to maintain this school until the new one opens this coming fall."

Josey says the staff is dealing with the situation as best they can and that they can't make the call to close the school when it's necessary.

"That's up to HRCE but what they have to remember when they put out the call for repairs is the plumbers come from the city and are an hour and a half away. It's noon before they even begin their work. The solution is spend the money now and invest in replacing the pump."

Hadley refers parents to the Government of Canada resource on hand hygiene. "It states that when soap and water are not available, a hand sanitizer, with minimum 60 per cent alcohol, can be used. The hand sanitizer at DMHS meets this threshold."

The parents question where the authority lies in making decisions to close.

Hadley says, "The decision on closing schools rests with the HRCE. The school principal is an essential part of the decision-making process. Staff are required to remain at school until all students have been safely dismissed."

He adds, "We appreciate hearing from staff and families if they have concerns. We would encourage them to bringing those concerns forward so they can be addressed."