Frustrated and concerned families want to know why they were not notified immediately about dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in a nursery-to-Grade 9 school at Brokenhead Ojibway Nation that sent nearly a dozen people to hospital Friday.
One woman says her eight-year-old daughter has been sick since school resumed after the Christmas break; she’s now wondering if the exhaustion, dizziness, headaches and vomiting were caused by unsafe conditions at Sergeant Tommy Prince School.
“It’s been a roller-coaster and a half,” said Chasity Simard.
The school was evacuated Friday afternoon and initial details about the early dismissal at the building, located about 70 kilometres north of Winnipeg, were released to members of the First Nation via the community’s radio station and school Facebook page.
“School is closing for health & safety purposes with respect to air quality levels/air quality. Buses will be leaving ASAP,” principal Patsy Bercier wrote on social media at 2:45 p.m.
At about 10:30 a.m. Friday, the First Nation’s health services office posted information about CO2 poisoning — without any context or explanation attached — on its Facebook page.
It was not until midday Sunday that Brokenhead’s main Facebook page announced classes were being cancelled due to high CO2 levels detected inside the school building.
Simard said she contacted several school staff members to find out what was going on Friday and learned serious health concerns related to air quality led multiple employees to seek medical treatment.
It was then Simard said she began to question the symptoms her daughter has experienced this month, all of which she had previously chalked up to general illness and fatigue after the holidays.
Shared Heath confirmed 11 patients visited emergency departments across the Interlake-Eastern and Winnipeg health regions on Friday and were all treated and released.
Sparse information from school officials Friday led to rumours and concerns among some in the community that the evacuation had occurred due to a carbon monoxide leak, potentially more dangerous than higher concentrations of CO2.
Both are colourless and odourless gases; CO2 spreads a sharp, acidic odour in high concentrations. Headaches and dizziness are among the symptoms a patient will experience if they become poisoned. Significant exposure to high amounts of CO2 can lead to unconsciousness and death.
Simard said her daughter reported smelling “a really gross, stinky smell” in her classroom Friday.
“The fact that I could’ve lost my daughter, it breaks me. She doesn’t know why I’ve been like this, crying for the past three days,” Simard said Monday, adding she wants to take her daughter to the doctor and plans to keep the eight-year-old home indefinitely.
CO2 levels reached “a strength considered to be toxic air quality” and that resulted in a shutdown because OVERSET FOLLOWS:the building was deemed unsafe, according to the Sunday letter signed by Bercier and Wendell Sinclair, a band councillor who is also the community’s director of education.
The notice states the school was outfitted with air purifier units for each furnace earlier in the school year and the equipment “was not completed to a proper safe running condition causing a lack of fresh intake into (the) building.”
The executive director of Manitoba’s First Nations education resource centre and school system, which is in charge of operating the school, indicated new HVAC infrastructure was installed over the summertime.
Charles Cochrane said work is underway to ensure the school’s indoor air is safe and CO2 sensors are being checked regularly. Cochrane dismissed claims there was a lag in providing families with information, saying there was no urgency to send a detailed letter because children were not in school on Saturday or Sunday.
Neither the school administrators’ letter nor a second letter Sunday from the school system outlined CO2 poisoning symptoms, encouraged families to seek medical attention after the exposure or noted community members visited the hospital.
Brokenhead Chief Gordon Bluesky said he has heard from a handful of people who are upset about how the situation was handled and is aware several individuals went to the hospital in the wake of the incident.
Further investigation is required to determine how the school’s response failed community members, Bluesky said.
“We have to ensure all parties are following the processes and procedures that are laid out in front of them because if we don’t do that, we would be negligent,” he added.
“Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our community, and our children, being our most vulnerable, need to be protected and we’re going to take steps to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 16, 2023