How will the kids cope? Fort McMurray schools reopen
As Maryellen MacDonald roams through the aisles of Staples in Fort McMurray, her daughters grab markers and pencil cases from the shelves and throw them into her shopping cart.
As part of the back-to-school shopping routine, she is carrying a list and reminding Olivia, 6, and Gabrielle, 9, what they do and do not need. When she tells Olivia she can have a new Thermos, Gabrielle asks what happened to her old one.
“It burned in the flames,” MacDonald says. “It burned in the house.”
The MacDonalds’ house was one of 472 that burned down in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood.
Fire tore through Fort McMurray on May 3, leading to the evacuation of the entire city, and ending the school year.
Now MacDonald’s daughters are living in a new neighbourhood across the city and are heading to a different school. After four months of uncertainty, she hopes September brings a sense of routine.
“It is going to be really helpful, I think. Everything was so thrown up in the air,” she says.
“It will give them their structure. It is way better. It is way better for us as a family, definitely.”
The children spent most of the summer away from Fort McMurray.
After evacuating, the family of four stayed with relatives in Antigonish, N.S. The children finished the school year there, but the images of the fire stayed with them.
One day, the MacDonalds had to rush to the new school because Gabrielle was having flashbacks and thought her schoolyard was burning.
“We are waiting to see how the kids can cope with some of this stuff,” says MacDonald. “We know it was certainly traumatic for them at the beginning.”
When the fire swept into Fort McMurray, most of the children were at school. The majority were picked up by their parents and driven out of the community. Heavy smoke billowed over the city, and towering flames burned beside their escape route, Highway 63.
Traffic was gridlocked, so when some parents weren’t able to reach their children, teachers took the students with them. In some cases it took days before families were able to reconnect.
A traumatic trigger
Fort McMurray educators are concerned the return could be a trigger for those struggling with memories of the fire.
During the first few weeks of September, Alberta Health Services will be in Fort McMurray providing a welcome centre for families and offering support. The public school district has a mental health therapist dedicated to working with students and teachers.
Educators are being trained in programming designed to help them calm anxiety in the classroom.
“We are going to have challenges throughout the school year,” says Douglas Nicholls, superintendent of Fort McMurray Public Schools.
“For instance, the first fire drill: What will it actually look like? How do we prepare students for that?”
This summer the school district worked on a strategy to deal with mental health in the schools, but one of the big unknowns is just how many students will not be returning.
Last year, 5,500 students were enrolled in the city’s public schools. Nicholls estimates enrolment could be down between 10 and 20 per cent this year, meaning that as many as 1,000 children might not come back.
The fire destroyed 2,400 buildings, and entire blocks of Fort McMurray are still sealed off. None of the schools burned down, but four in the hardest-hit neighbourhoods won’t reopen this year, as crews are still cleaning up smoke damage.
Even the schools that were not in the direct path of the fire required extensive cleaning by hundreds of restoration workers.
“We have 40,000 books that have been cleaned, wiped and now re-shelved,” says Nicholls.
Classroom material that couldn’t be cleaned had to be thrown out. Anything that was left behind during the evacuation was rounded up and labelled.
Clear plastic bags filled with items like homework and running shoes were stored through the summer, and in recent days students have trickled in to claim their belongings.
“As soon as we get back to normal procedures, routines, clubs, teams, activities day-to-day stuff that kids want and need, the sooner it will be that the kids will return to a more normal state of their lives,” says Nicholls.