Marco Cvitanovic (left) and Julia Widdowson under an earthquake-proof desk at St. Patrick’s Elementary School.

School upgrades for earthquakes should be complete in five to seven years

For most people, Victoria is an ideal place to live, raise a family and educate our children.

For most people, Victoria is an ideal place to live, raise a family and educate our children.

The city, however, has faults  — seismic faults — and the challenges that arise from its geology are substantial when it comes to ensuring the safety of children in Victoria’s schools.

“For our older schools, when they were constructed, I don’t think that seismic safety was even on the radar,” said Mark Walsh, secretary-treasurer of the Greater Victoria School District No. 61.

“Our oldest structures are traditional brick buildings and a few are at that 100 year plus mark. No one was thinking about seismic safety back then.”

The situation fundamentally shifted after a series of southern California earthquakes in the mid 1980s. Studies initiated at that time eventually prompted the B.C. government to examine its own public buildings, including all schools in the province. School buildings were rated on a scale ranging from high to low risk, and the resulting seismic mitigation program identified a total of 342 schools in need of upgrading to ensure student safety.

Since then, the government has spent $2.2 billion to upgrade or replace 214 high-risk schools. The remaining 128 B.C. schools at a high risk rating are still to be addressed.

“The really good news is that in Victoria, we’re ahead of most of the province and our work should be completed in the next five to seven years,” said Walsh.

Since 2001, the Greater Victoria School District has spent $177 million toward completing upgrades on 14 schools. Eight more are slated for repair in order of the risk that they present to students.

The challenges for Victoria’s private schools are different, given they are not eligible for public funds for upgrades.

Some private schools, like St. Patrick’s Elementary School, have had to seek some more innovative solutions to address the problem.

Deanne Paulson, principal of St. Patrick’s, said the issue has been a challenging one.

“We installed some earthquake detection equipment in 2014 in cooperation with UBC and it has already worked to give us advance notice of several smaller quakes, notably one around Christmas of this year. That warning system triggers an alarm that gives the children a chance to duck and cover,” she said.

The early warning capability has been augmented through the purchase of “earthquake proof” desks under which children can shelter in case of a large quake. The desks are of steel construction, accommodate two students each, and come equipped with glow sticks, dust masks, and food and water supplies.

“As great as those preparations have been, we’re pleased to say that the actual structural upgrades will now be taking place,” said Paulson.