Waskaganish students back in class but school still closed after diesel spill

More than four hundred students and their teachers from the northern Quebec community of Waskaganish are back in class — in temporary classrooms — after being forced out of school by a diesel spill last month.

On Oct. 16 during a planned power outage, a faulty generator hose caused a diesel spill that went undetected for several hours in the maintenance room at École Annie Whiskeychan Memorial Elementary School in the James Bay community. 

"The fuel unfortunately leaked out over the course of about seven or eight hours," said Shaun McMahon, principal of both the elementary and high school in Waskaganish.

He said the spill was cleaned up. But more than a month later, after complaints about the smell from teachers, the school was closed and an inspector discovered the diesel had seeped into cracks in the cement floor. 

We had to activate a contingency plan. - Sarah Diamond, Waskaganish community education adminstrator

The students were back in class Monday for the first time since Nov. 20. 

"We've had to activate a contingency plan so the students can continue with their education," said Sarah Diamond, Waskaganish's community education administrator.

Students and teachers are holding class in several locations around the community, including the gathering place, the arena complex, the old band office and others, she said.

Sarah Blacksmith Diamond/Facebook

'Really happy to see each other'

Diamond also said the whole community is taking the whole situation in stride. 

"There's been a lot of community effort ... from the chief and council, from the parents, students and from the members of our community," said Diamond. 

Last Friday, an outdoor activity day was planned with a marshmallow roast, tobogganing and other activities to bring students and teachers together before classes resumed this week.  

Sarah Blacksmith Diamond/Facebook

"Both students and staff were really happy to see each other," said McMahon. 

A construction crew is expected to arrive in Waskaganish on Wednesday and begin the repair work, but McMahon said it's not clear yet how long the students and teachers will have to be in temporary classrooms. 

"It's an unfortunate situation and we are all trying our best. We need everybody's support," said McMahon. He said that for a first test of the community's contingency plan, it went better than he expected. 

"People really pulled together," said McMahon, adding they are open to receiving constructive criticism to improve the plan.