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Alannah Sheriland has two children in Grades 1 and 4 at Hazelgrove Elementary School in Surrey, B.C. She worries about possibly having to juggle morning and afternoon sessions for them, as well as before- and after-school care, if capacity issues persist.Jennifer Gauthier/The Globe and Mail

Parents in Surrey, one of British Columbia’s fastest growing cities, are contemplating what a school day might soon look like, as their community’s population continues to rise.

A survey from the Surrey School District this past fall asked them to conceive of some measures that would once have seemed inconceivable, all aimed at reducing crowding in classrooms. Should students attend classes in two different shifts, with some finishing their days at 8 p.m.? Should some students go to school on an alternative calendar that runs through the summer? Should some classes be held online?

With more than 40 per cent of the district’s schools operating over capacity as of December, something will have to be done.

All of this has Alannah Sheriland wondering if she will have to home-school her two children, who attend Grades 1 and 4 at Hazelgrove Elementary School, in Surrey’s Clayton Heights neighbourhood.

“What happens when they split the class? Let’s say my one kid has to go to school in the morning session, and the other kid has to go to the afternoon session. How are parents supposed to do that? And how will that affect before- and after-school care?” she wondered.

“There’s all these factors that are up in the air, and I’m like, what are they thinking? It’s really quite distressing.”

Surrey’s situation is an extreme example of the pressures many cities are facing as high rates of immigration fuel population growth across Canada, and as provincial and federal officials focus on delivering thousands of new housing units as fast as possible.

Late last month, Statistics Canada released data showing the country’s population grew by more than 430,000 during the third quarter of 2023, largely driven by immigration. This marked the fastest pace of population growth in any quarter since 1957. The previous record was set in 2022.

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In Surrey, the local population grew about 10 per cent between 2016 and 2021, according to the latest available census figures – higher than the province’s 7.2-per-cent rate of growth during that time, and almost double the national growth rate.

The city is expecting to gain 26,142 new housing units in the next five years, almost 3,600 more than were added in the previous five. To keep up, the Surrey School District has been furiously adding portable classrooms, and now one in 10 students in the district are learning in them. The units are not air-conditioned and not all of them have washrooms.

Ritinder Matthew, a spokesperson for the district, said the city would need 10 more elementary schools and one more secondary school to keep up with the current rate of growth. Only five new schools opened in the district between 2018 and 2023. Eight are currently either under construction or in the planning stages. The district’s latest five-year capital plan calls for $3.17-billion in provincial funding to deal with enrolment growth.

The city’s mayor, Brenda Locke, said she is outraged by the situation. “Surrey kids, Surrey parents deserve to have equity when it comes to education. And right now, they don’t have it.”

The local city council voted this past spring to declare the state of school infrastructure a “crisis.”

The school district has averaged more than 2,400 new students annually in the past two years, compared with only around 800 students in prior years. The district is expecting almost 3,000 new students next year, Ms. Matthew said.

B.C.’s Ministry of Education said in a statement that it is working closely with the district to find ways of building schools and classrooms faster. It said the province has worked to shorten the school construction process by streamlining provincial approvals. In the fall, the provincial government announced funding for 36 new prefabricated classrooms at three schools in the city, equipped with dedicated washrooms, heating and air conditioning, and ventilation systems.

But it’s still not enough.

Ms. Matthew said the strategies proposed in the fall survey sent to parents are still being considered, and that when or whether they are implemented will depend on their complexity, as well as the feedback the district receives.

Ms. Sheriland said her children’s music class was shuffled into their school’s multipurpose room this past semester, and that parents were not allowed to attend some events, including a winter concert, to avoid dangerous crowding in the building’s gym.

Amy Johnston, a mother of two Surrey students, worries an extended school day would affect her children’s extracurricular activities and family time. She said she opposes the online education option.

“We just went through a pandemic. It is in almost immediate memory, and the challenges that families had, of having to school their kids online and supervised schooling outside of school, were immense,” she said.

Jatinder Bir, president of the Surrey Teachers Association, said the proposed strategies for dealing with overcrowding have had an impact on the entire school system.

“It feels like a temporary fix, rather than really getting to the heart of what the needs of our citizens are in our city,” Ms. Bir said.

Surrey school board trustee Terry Allen said the school district has not turned any student away because of overcrowding, though he said some students may now have to be bussed to schools outside their neighbourhoods.

“Somebody has to realize that you cannot continue to overcapacity schools. At the end of the day, there’s a breaking point,” he said.

If the problems persist, he added, implementing some of the suggestions in the survey may be unavoidable.

“Everything is on the table, as long as the growth continues the way it is.”

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