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The never-ending school trip to the mainland

Displaced by flooding, island kids trade trees and ducks for cranes and cars at their temporary school in Regent Park

Twin sisters Billie and Izzy Page, 6, and their schoolmate Ireal Similien, 9, play on the sand bags on Ward’s Island on Wednesday.

When the call came just after noon on May 17, Scott Woolford was told he would have to gather his things and leave by the end of the school day. He would have to pack his budget binder, medical emergency binder and the parent council binder, along with everything else: "How do you pack up an office in two hours?"

As principal at Island Public School, the school with the most unusual geography in the city, you sometimes have to be adaptable.

There are 246,000 kids attending Toronto District School Board schools. Only 236 of them attend school on the Toronto Islands. And while about 30 of them live there, the vast majority are from the Harbourfront community, which means they are the only students in the city who travel to school every day by boat.

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When the water freezes during a harsh winter, shutting down the regular ferry for a day or two and keeping the Harbourfront kids from getting to school, the island-resident kids, supervised by two staff members who also live on the island, ride a city bus to Billy Bishop airport. The bus travels the airport runway, letting the students off at the airport ferry for a short ride to the foot of Bathurst Street, where the TDSB finds them some space for school.

And when the island floods, as it has this spring, they are forced to find a temporary home.

Their school is dry, but the roadways to the ferry docks were not safe for the children and Mr. Woolford had to move his students to the mainland for the remainder of the school year.

Izzy and Billie walk off the ferry as they temporarily attend Nelson Mandela Park Public School.

"How do you fit a whole school somewhere else?" he asked.

On that phone call in May was Jason Kandankery, the tall, affable principal at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood. The school accommodated the island kids before, and it had space for them.

Mr. Kandankery's crew would get to work cleaning out 10 rooms for when the island kids arrived the next day. Yoga mats in one room were moved into storage; so were larger desks to make room for smaller ones.

On the other side of the lake, Mr. Woolford's crew set aside laptop carts, students' schoolwork, tables and carpets for the big move.

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"See these baby hands? We didn't have to pick up anything," Mr. Kandankery said jokingly, one afternoon this week.

Added Mr. Woolford, a friendly man: "It was so well orchestrated. There were no hiccups."

Billie walks near large puddles of water and a shoreline lined with sand bags on Ward’s Island.

The next morning, the island-students boarded the ferry at Ward's Island with two teachers and met their mainland classmates and teachers, as well as Mr. Woolford, at the terminal. Three school buses followed one another to Nelson Mandela school.

By noon on May 18 – a day after the call – the children settled into their new classrooms. The principals have staggered recess time and lunch so that both schools get to use the playground and gymnasium for their meal. Sometimes, one class will invite another into its room, or kids from Nelson Mandela will read alongside island students in the hallways.

About a month in, eight-year-old Eli Prins-Carty has reluctantly settled into his new space. He cuts pictures for a collage on the floor of his large classroom, which he shares with another class. Nearby, the Grade 1s are rehearsing for their play.

Eli said he walks to the ferry dock to meet his island-side classmates every morning at 8:10 for their ferry-and-bus commute to school. Before the flooding, the school bus used to pick him up on the island and take him to school.

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"It's way bigger," Eli said of his temporary classroom. "There are so many floors, and there are so many more rooms and so many more classrooms."

The island school is a one-storey building, and Nelson Mandela has three floors. On the island, kids can see the forest outside their school windows, not the cranes and construction workers around the Regent Park school.

On the island, kids can see the forest outside their school windows, not the cranes and construction workers around the Regent Park school.

Billie Page, 6, wonders if the duck eggs on the playground at her island school have hatched. Her mom, Melissa Amer, said that, although spring is a "magical" time on the island, being in the city is an adventure.

Billie is not so sure. "It has no nature," she said.

"Yes, it does," said her twin sister, Izzy.

Billie, wearing a white summer dress with pictures of leaves, shrugs her shoulders: "It has a bunch of cars, and it's busy."

Both girls, fifth-generation islanders, were nervous when they first came to the city for school.

"Then I got used to it," Billie said, getting ready for her commute home.

Billie dozes off as she rides the school bus to the ferry dock on her way home.

Izzy strapped on her backpack, the one with a bright pink unicorn on it, and formed a line in her classroom with Billie.

They followed their teacher down three flights of stairs, and burst out the school doors into the warm sunshine. They climbed onto the last of three school buses that would wind their way through the congestion of Lake Shore Boulevard.

As they approached the ferry docks, two police officers had blocked off the bike lanes so the children could cross safely to the sidewalk. Time was running tight – the ferry was scheduled to depart at 4 p.m.

"We got to go," one teacher said, "we got to go."

Izzy and Billie ran as fast as their little legs could carry them onto the boat that would take them home.

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