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Wildfires overshadowed return to school for Central Okanagan students

Teachers, adminstrators, operational staff applauded for their efforts

There is an air of excitement and anticipation for students returning to school every September.

But with the Grouse Complex wildfires still burning on the Westside and some students returning to school while still either on evacuation order, evacuation alert or their homes having burned to the ground, this September was a little different for reopening of Central Okanagan public schools.

While Kevin Kaardal gave Part 1 of his annual September back to school report, offering updates on enrolment numbers, school capital improvement projects and staffing, he discussed at length the impact of the wildfires to staff, students, families and the illustration that translates to what public education means to a community.

“We need public education more than ever when a community is facing a crisis,” Kaardal said at the Central Okanagan Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.

He described a feeling of euphoria that was palpable in some schools on Sept. 5, where students having experienced their lives being uprooted by the wildfires saw a return to some sense of normalcy in their lives by returning to class.

Kaardal said students were welcomed by an equally excited teaching staff, along with school district trauma counselling supports in place to help students who needed it.

“I have just learned this afternoon that Westside Road will be back open on a limited basis which will enable our school buses which have been rerouted through Vernon to reduce the travel time, so we are excited about that,” Kaardal said.

“But we also know for some students it might be difficult to drive down Westside Road and see the tragedy of lost homes from the wildfire, so we’ll be ready for that as well.”

Kaardal took time to acknowledge the efforts of the firefighters who manned the frontlines, citing their efforts to save Rose Valley Elementary, which saw the fire reach the school fence boundaries.

Kaardal said firefighters fought off the flames until the wildfire was moved on by the wind, noting that while considerable attention was given to efforts to save a $75 million water treatment plant on West Kelowna, saving the school also represented preserving a $40 million facility.

He also extended his gratitude for the efforts of school district support staff, his administrative leaders and teachers for their efforts to ensure all schools would open on time.

In his report, Kaardal cited the efforts of operations staff members Harold Schock, Josh Currie and Rob Drew for their support in working with the Emergency Operations Centre; the entire international education team and homestay coordinators who had to find temporary lodging for hundreds of arriving students; and the administrative and custodial team at Mount Boucherie Secondary for supporting the move of the Westside EOC from Royal LePage Place to the high school.

“Many of our staff have housed or continue to house families on evacuation order or those who have lost their homes. Last year’s theme of creating caring communities for our school district is being lived daily,” said Kaardal in his report.

And adding to that situation was the landslide on the highway between Summerland and Peachland, forcing the school district to find alternate means to get teachers living south of that rock slide to their schools.

“Our staff at every level were exceptional,” Kaardal told the board of education.

“Our staff were in schools getting ready on the Labour Day weekend for classes because they know and understand how important that is for students.”

Kaardal noted some summer school improvement projects were delayed because of the wildfire disruptions, but he said those projects will ultimately get finished.

“We will get there,” he said.

On the statistical side, Kaardal’s report related some school district numbers for the outset of the 2023-24 school term:

* As if Sept. 12, 24, 194 students were registered in the Central Okanagan Public Schools system, an increase of 466 from original projections and 666 over enrolment for Sept. 30, 2022.

• To date there are 438 fee paying international students who have arrived and another 105 coming in the second half of this school year. Those students represent 29 countries.

• The school district Welcome Centre have helped initiate 331 students and their families from 44 different countries compared to 156 in September 2022.


Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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