Hundreds of students at one Toronto school will not be going back to in-person learning this September and the reason sheds light on a multibillion-dollar problem at the city’s schools.
“We understand their disappointment, believe us, we really understand it. But at the same time, the school must be safe for students and for staff,” said trustee Markus de Domenico.
The concern isn’t the COVID-19 pandemic, but a roof in dire need of repair.
Students at Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School will be learning online until Thanksgiving, as construction crews continue to work at the site, said local Toronto Catholic School Board trustee Maria Rizzo.
“This was a difficult, heartbreaking decision,” she said.
Extensive water damage to Loretto’s roof was discovered earlier this year when construction workers were putting a new ventilation system into the historic school. The leaky roof had to be addressed before planned work could continue.
“There is no ventilation in the entire building because of the renovations that are going on,” added de Domenico. “We certainly cannot allow students and staff in the building without ventilation.”
Work at Loretto has been happening on-and-off since the beginning of the pandemic, Rizzo said, including a boiler replacement and asbestos removal. The TCDSB says the original budget was $7.2 million. The project now costs $8.1 million with the roof repairs.
Loretto is one of dozens of schools across Toronto that need repairs or upgrades, according to data from school boards.
The repair backlog at Toronto’s 203 Catholic schools was projected to hit $1 billion in 2020, according to a 2017 report. At the time, the board said only 11 per cent of schools were in good or fair condition, while 89 per cent were in poor or critical condition. (Since then, some schools have been repaired, while a handful have moved to new facilities.)
The Toronto District School Board estimates 20,400 repairs are needed at their facilities as of this year for a total backlog of $3.7 billion. By comparison, the TDSB says it’s getting $275 million in repair money from the province in 2021-2022.
“These buildings are going to continue to age,” said Krista Wylie, co-founder of Fix Our Schools. She said Ontario school repairs have been underfunded for two decades.
Province-wide, the school repair backlog is estimated to be $16.8 billion over the next five years.
“Following a decade of school closures and a growing backlog under the Liberals, our government will continue to invest in building modern schools,” Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, told CityNews in a statement.
The Ministry of Education said it’s investing $1.4 billion in school renewal across the province this year, plus $500 million a year to build new schools and renovate existing ones. The province is also putting $656.6 million into improving school ventilation because of the pandemic.
“This is not a partisan issue. This has been something that has been going on over many different governments in the province,” said Wylie. “That small infusion of extra COVID-19 dollars hasn’t made much of a dent. Nor, quite frankly, has the regular $1.4 billion per year.”
Meanwhile, pandemic-related materials shortages are delaying some work that had been slated for this year, note trustees and the board. That includes window or door replacement work at St. Paul, St. Clare and St. Helen Catholic schools.
“COVID has really shone a light on the need for us – and we’ve done it – to reassess all of our schools,” said de Domenico. “We’re always open to more funding. We would love to do more work, and we advocate for that all the time.”
The public can check which Catholic schools were slated for repair this year on the board’s website. The TDSB also publishes information on school conditions, on every facility’s website. To see its rating, click “Renewal Needs and FCI” on the left side of the page. For schools in the rest of the province, the most recent publicly available list of repair data was released in 2017.
At Loretto, trustee de Domenico said the school is planning events so that students, especially those just starting high school, can start finding a sense of belonging.
“We do understand the anxiety and the frustration of the parents, and certainly of the students. Their emotional and mental health is a primary concern for us,” says de Domenico. “At the other end, we have to make sure the building is safe.”