Progress made but still work to do as Fort McMurray heads back to school

[Fort McMurray’s high schoolers finally graduate during a summer ceremony after the wildfire disrupted the school year in May / CBC]

Paula Snow’s daughter AdLee will be starting school for the first time this year, in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Many parents have some concerns about sending their children to school for the first time, but this year Snow’s worries are more with her son Cameron, who is eight and headed to Grade 3. That’s because the last time Cameron was in his school, St. Martha Elementary, it was being evacuated as a wildfire began breaching the city limits.

“I am okay with AdLee, it’s the normal fears of the first year of school,” Snow tells Yahoo Canada News. “But with Cameron I am a little nervous. The last time he was in the school it was scary for them, and I am not sure how he is going to react to going back.”

Snow was working when the evacuation orders began in Fort McMurray on May 3, and a friend of hers picked up Cameron from his school. It was a stressful two hours before they were reunited, Snow says.

Her son will be able to attend the same school this fall, and the family is back in their home, but for many in the city a lot of challenges lay ahead as kids get ready to return to the classroom.

“We’ll be returning with the start of the school year in Fort McMurray, back to what we’re familiar with,” Doug Nicholls, superintendent of the Fort McMurray Public School Board, tells Yahoo Canada News. “We’re really looking forward to Tuesday.”

On September 6 students and teachers from Fort McMurray’s Catholic and public school boards will return to their classrooms for the first time since the May 3 evacuation of more than 80,000 people from the city and surrounding area during a wildfire.

Some of those students will be returning to schools they fled four months ago when a wildfire burning outside the city limits grew quickly and an evacuation order was implemented mid-day.

“I’m afraid to ask him too much about school because he is normally a little nervous about going to school,” Snow says, “and I’m afraid it will really affect him this time, how it was so traumatic how they left.”

Long-term Mental health resources in place

The importance for mental-health supports for staff, students, and teachers–including some who lost their homes–is on the minds of board superintendents and school staffers.

Both boards began the work of mentally preparing staff and students to return over the summer with mental-health training, staff meetings, open houses and the schools, and social events for teacher and admin.

The districts are working with outside agencies like Alberta Mental Health, the Red Cross, and the United Way to help students get physically and emotionally ready for the year, Nichols says. Counselling services will increase in every school in the city, with additional support staff at the school boards.

And schools have provided opportunities to retrieve belongings left behind in the rush to evacuate, giving students and parents a chance to be inside before the official first day back, Fort McMurray Catholic School Board superintendent George McGuigan tells Yahoo Canada News.

“That opportunity for parents, staff, and the students to get together, it was really heartwarming to see that reconnection and have it happen naturally,” McGuigan says. “We want people to have to go through that first step of reconnecting, because that enables them to have that reconnection and then move forward.”

Both board superintendents acknowledge that there’s a long view on recovery for the schools and their staff, students, and teachers. The plans in place for September 6 aren’t meant just to get them through the first few weeks or even this school year, McGuigan and Nicholls say–they’re looking at what will be needed over the next three-plus years.

Right now the supports are largely practical, like United Way efforts to outfit students with backpacks filled with necessary school supplies. In the coming months and years they will shift depending on need, which could be considerable. Mental-health referrals in the region have risen significantly in the months since the fire, CBC News reported in August, with nearly a quarter of the community seeking counselling or therapy.

But when September 6 comes, and in the time beyond that, it will likely work out that most students will readjust well and even find some comfort in being back to their usual routines. The research they have shows that 80 to 85 per cent of students will be fine, coming back to school ready for the year to begin and settling in easily, Nicholls says.

“There could be 15 per cent or so who require that little bit of extra help, that little bit of extra support,” Nicholls says. Schools across the city are putting resources in place now so they can quickly help out if it becomes clear some people are struggling, McGuigan says.

Extensive repairs needed

Though most of the city’s schools will be ready to go for September 6, though two in the Catholic board and one in the public board were damaged badly enough that they aren’t yet safe to return to.

Schools in both boards that escaped structural damage still lost many supplies due to smoke, water, and contaminants. It took about 500 workers to get its 15 schools ready, says Nicholls.

“It was a monumental task. There was about 700,000 square feet of tile replacement alone, as an example,” Nicholls says. “There’s been an incredible amount of work that’s been completed.”

Many students will be returning to school before they again have a permanent home in the city, due to heavy losses of homes to fire in some areas and damage to remaining properties. While many Fort McMurray and area residents were able to begin returning to the city in early June, the residents of the hard-hit Abasand and Beacon Hill neighbourhoods were only allowed to begin returning on Wednesday and those in Waterways are still not permitted to come back to their properties.

Because of residents who cannot yet return or have decided to leave the city, and those who have moved to different parts of the city post-fire, both boards do expect overall student enrollment to be lower this year compared to the last in addition to the drop expected because of the downturn in the area’s resource sector.

And though the city itself has done a lot of work to get schools ready for the day after Labour Day, the wider efforts across the province and even the country have helped make it possible for Fort McMurray students to be back in September, McGuigan says.

“What’s been very nice is the work of the community, the work of our local municipal government, the work of our provincial government, and the support from the people across the country that have really risen to the occasion to help us rebuild, restore and get us going again,” McGuigan says. “That’s very touching.”

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