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Seismic mitigation: The urgent need for safer schools

October 2018

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In the event of an earthquake, the structural safety of schools is crucial for protecting the lives of students, teachers, and other workers. Furthermore, the safety of entire communities can depend on schools as a safe space, meeting place, or shelter.

The Ministry of Education first announced a plan to seismically upgrade BC schools in 2005.1 However, for over 15 years, repeated promises to seismically upgrade BC schools were broken and multiple plans were delayed, leaving BC’s teachers, school support staff, and students in unsafe and dangerous buildings. According to the Ministry’s September 2018 progress report, there are 347 schools in the province's seismic mitigation program.2  Of these 178 schools have completed upgrades, 29 are under construction or proceeding to construction, and 36 are in business case development. This leaves 104 schools as “future priorities.”

The BCTF has welcomed the capital funding announcements made  by the NDP government during the 2017–18 school year. This funding is urgently needed to upgrade all identified schools, as a public safety concern, and complete all work no later than 2025.

Dangerously slow progress: 2005 to 2016

When the Government of British Columbia formally announced its plan to make seismic upgrades to school buildings in 2005, the goal was to have these upgrades complete by 2020.3  Some progress towards this goal was made between 2005 and 2013, with approximately 26 new seismic upgrade projects approved, and over 16 projects completed, per year.4

This progress dramatically decreased in 2013 at least partly due to a target, announced by the Ministry, that a school district’s capital plans should include the goal of a district-wide utilization rate of 95% of school spaces.5 For example, the Ministry did not approve Victoria’s Shoreline Middle School’s project because of “concerns over the low utilization  rate at that school (63%) and across the district as a whole (80%).” 6

From 2013 to 2015 only two new projects began their planning: Surrey’s J. T. Brown Elementary School in 2014 and Campbell River’s Pinecrest Elementary School in 2015.7 Overall, the number of schools completed fell by half, from 16 to under 8 projects per year.8 Over this same time-period, the Ministry identified 25 additional schools as needing seismic upgrades.9

Recognizing the slow progress, the government announced in March 2015 that the completion deadline was being extended to 2025, and to 2030 for Vancouver.10  In September 2016, the government announced the removal of the 95% utilization rate requirement and stated that projects would be approved on a case-by-case basis.11

No time to wait

Between September 2016 and September 2018, only 23 schools finished their seismic upgrades.12 Of the 104 “future priorities” schools, 47 are marked with a risk rating of “High 1,” the “highest risk of widespread damage or structural failure.” There are over 21,000 students in these highest-risk schools alone. 13

At the current rate it will be 2033 before the last school is upgraded. This doesn’t count the additional schools that, as they age, will likely be identified as in need of seismic upgrades. For example, over the past two years, the Ministry added five schools to the Seismic Mitigation Program. If this rate continues, it will take over 18 additional years to finish all the necessary seismic upgrades, pushing the completion date to 2037.14 In order to meet an overall deadline of 2025, the average number of projects completed per year needs to increase by between 105% to 130%, depending on if, and how many, additional schools require seismic upgrades.

When the BC NDP took power in July 2017, one of its promises was to “make schools safer by accelerating the seismic upgrade program.”15 However, in the past year there has not been construction. For instance, Victoria’s Shoreline Middle School, mentioned above, is still held up in the business case development phase.

To protect the lives of students, teachers, and other workers, the Ministry of Education must keep its promise to accelerate the seismic upgrade program and make BC schools safer.


Ministry of Education. (2005, March 7). PROVINCE LAUNCHES $1.5 BILLION SCHOOL SEISMIC UPGRADES. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved from: archive.news.gov.bc.ca/releases/archive/2001-2005/2005BCED0028-000245.htm.

2  Ministry of Education. (2009–2018). Seismic Mitigation Program Progress Report. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved from: www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/pubdocs/bcdocs2013_2/536229/index.htm.

Ministry of Education. (2005, March 7). PROVINCE LAUNCHES $1.5 BILLION SCHOOL SEISMIC UPGRADES. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved from: archive.news.gov.bc.ca/releases/archive/2001-2005/2005BCED0028-000245.htm.

4 BCTF Calculation Tables based on Seismic Mitigation Program Progress Reports published regularly by the Ministry of Education. Henceforth BCTF SMP Reports Calculations.

5 See for example: Ministry of Education. (2014). MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING REGARDING VANCOUVER BOARD OF EDUCATION SEISMIC MITIGATION PROJECT OFFICE. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved from: www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/education/administration/resource-management/capital-planning/seismic-mitigation/vancouver_project_office_mou.pdf.

6 (2016). Seismic Upgrade FOI package. BCNDP Caucus. Retrieved from: bcndpcaucus.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2016/11/2016-11-01-Seismic-Upgrade-FOI-package.pdf.

7 BCTF SMP Reports Calculations.

8 BCTF SMP Reports Calculations.

The schools were identified in Richmond by assessment done following the 2014 New Zealand earthquake. See: Ministry of Education (2018). FOI Request – EDU-2018- 80320. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved from: www2.gov.bc.ca/enSearch/detail?id=26EE74C124B8476EA280E7A3C823A2D8&recorduid=EDU-2018-80320.

10 Sherlock, Tracy. (2014, March 7). Seismic upgrading of B.C. schools pushed back 10 years (with video). Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from: www.vancouversun.com/news/Seismic+upgrading+schools+pushed+back+years+with+video/10865738/story.html.

11 Morton, Brian. (2016, September 21). B.C. government removes 95% utilization target for school upgrades. Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from: vancouversun.com/news/local-news/b-c-government-removes-95-utilization-target-for-school-upgrades.

12 BCTF SMP Reports Calculations.

13  Ministry of Education. (2016, April). Seismic Structural Risk Ratings by Block. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved from: www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/education/administration/resource-management/capital-planning/seismic-mitigation/seismic_structural_risk_ratings_blocks.pdf.

14  BCTF SMP Reports Calculations.

15  Horgan, John. (2017, July 18). Mandate Letter to Rob Fleming. Office of the Premier. Retrieved from: www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/government/ministries-organizations/premier-cabinet-mlas/minister-letter/fleming-mandate.pdf.

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