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Schools welcome seismic upgrades

School board notes renovations

Parents of children attending École Jules Quesnel and Laura Secord elementary will likely breathe easier this September after extensive structural upgrades to make them safer in an earthquake were completed in time for the start of classes.

Students who spent the last school year in temporary portable classrooms or, in the case of French immersion students at École Jules Quesnel were squeezed into nearby Queen Elizabeth Elementary, will return to their own hallways and playgrounds now that construction is completed.

The West Side École Jules Quesnel, originally built in the 1920s as a wing of Lord Byng secondary school, received upgrades to its classrooms and exterior walls, as well as the three-storey wing housing the gym and a multi-purpose room replaced. Century-old Laura Secord elementary on the East Side saw far more elaborate renovations done, including the addition of shearwalls and the strengthening of its foundation.

"We went on tours with the staff and they were jumping for joy," said John Murnane, manager of facilities for the Vancouver School Board. "These projects aren't just seismic upgrades. When we do these projects, there's a lot more to it. When we go in there, basically we're hoping the school won't see us for another 30 years and when they do, it's probably a mechanical or an electrical upgrade. You're not only making it safe and trying to retain the heritage value, you're also giving schools major, major upgrades."

Seismic upgrades have been completed sporadically in B.C. for the past few decades, but the majority of the projects have come since 2004 after the provincial government committed to $1.5 billion in safety-oriented refits over 15 years.

A total of 103 schools in the Vancouver district were assessed for seismic risk and assigned a relative priority ranking. So far work has only been completed at 30 schools, and construction at dozens more has yet to begin.

"There are a few ones that are going through what we call PDR-project definition reports-or, in other words, feasibility studies," said Murnane. "We're moving as fast as we can here. We put projects forward, and either they get accepted by the Ministry [of Education] or they don't."

Patti Bacchus, Vision Vancouver chair of the school board, wants upgrades approved and funded much more quickly.

"This is an urgent issue," she told the Courier in a phone interview. "Unreinforced masonry is quite typical of what we see right across Vancouver in many of our schools that are around 100 years old and those are about the worst place you can be in an earthquake. The risk of potential collapse is catastrophic. This is a problem that should have been addressed years ago. We have dozens of schools that need to be upgraded and we don't know if an earthquake is coming next week or in 25 years or longer, but it probably will come and we need to be prepared."

While she said she was pleased the heritage value of École Jules Quesnel and Secord Elementary were kept, she pointed out that new schools could sometimes be a wiser investment.

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