Contractors and government officials break ground on the new Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre on Aug. 25, with an anticipated project timeline of 18 months. (Screenshot: GIS)

As the sixth anniversary of hurricanes Irma and Maria nears, the students at Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre will return to class at the Valerie O. Thomas Community Centre in Sea Cows Bay for one more school year.

But they are set to have a new building 18 months from now.

On Aug. 25, contractors broke ground for the new school, which is being overseen by the Recovery and Development Agency and funded in part by money from the $65 million Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Loan secured from the Caribbean Development Bank after Hurricane Irma. Work on the nearly $4 million project is scheduled to start Sept. 5.

The specialised facility will include a sensory and therapeutic room, hygiene and withdrawal rooms, exterior and interior learning spaces, and full wheelchair accessibility, Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro said at the Friday ground-breaking ceremony.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley acknowledged that students and staff at the school have been through a “difficult few years,” and said the new building is a key step in the ongoing recovery of the territory’s education sector.

Time at ASPS

After the school was destroyed in the 2017 hurricanes, its students were temporarily headquartered at the Althea Scatliffe Primary School.

But after the ASPS building was condemned and bulldozed last year, they had to move to their current location.

The premier said the ASPS arrangement had offered EHRLC students new socialisation opportunities, but it also brought limitations in government’s ability to serve their special needs.

“I hope and pray and wish that even in the design of the [new] school, we allow for that integration and that interaction to be able to take place,” he said, adding, “We look forward to being able to provide services to all the young people in our community, because one thing we have to improve on as a community is equity, to ensure all members of our community have a certain standard of services, regardless of how you are abled.”

Project cost

Besides the funds accessed from the CDB loan, the government’s 2023 budget allocated $1.6 million toward the project.

RDA Procurement Officer Xa’V Gordon said at the ground breaking that the project initially went out for bid in July 2022, and deadlines kept being extended until January of this year.

A dozen bidders sought documents, but Mr. Gordon said only five met the final deadline.

Autland Heavy Equipment, a Virgin Islands firm, won the top recommendation and secured the $3,959,690 contract for the project. It is scheduled to be complete in 18 months.

“The RDA procurement unit continues to support a transparent procurement process which allows for the equal treatment of all eligible contractors, suppliers and consultants,” Mr. Gordon said.

Ms. de Castro said this project “holds immense promise for the future of our beloved Virgin Islands.”

She also recounted the history of the original school, which was built in 1972, and commended families and staff for adapting to several relocations and dealing with limited resources.

“It is evident that the current facilities fall short of providing the specialised amenities necessary for special needs education in the Virgin Islands,” she said. “Today, we gather with renewed determination and enthusiasm as we embark on a journey to rebuild the Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre.”