When the COVID-19 pandemic started to shut down events and meetings, anxiety and uncertainty undoubtedly started to sink in. But on March 15, when classes were cancelled, many teachers and support staff in Fort McMurray were having eerily similar feelings to those we felt back in May of 2016.
Evacuating Fort McMurray due to the wildfire is an experience none of us will ever forget. While there are many differences between that experience and this new experience of isolation and social distancing, there are also many similarities.
In 2016, I felt a lot of anxiety about leaving my home, as I’m sure almost everyone did. Some even saw their homes burning before they left. Fortunately, I did not. But I did feel confused about when it would all be over, when we would be able to return home, and whether or not my house would be there when I got back. I think this feeling of uncertainty is very similar to what some are feeling during this pandemic. I know I find myself wondering when we will be able to go back to feeling normal; to seeing our family, friends and students; to being back at work; and to looking people in the eye at the grocery store.
For Fort McMurray teachers, this is the second time we have had to end the school year early without a proper goodbye to our students. And this second time hasn’t been any easier. In fact, I’ve heard from many here that this was one of the most difficult parts for them, to have to do that piece all over again.
I certainly remember the feeling I had in 2016 when the last student in my class left that day. I was relieved that they were all safe with their families, but I didn’t know it would be September until I would see them again. Now, in 2020, I imagine that many people are feeling a similar disquiet due to this lack of closure. For me, there’s almost a little bit of anger and disbelief that this is the second time that something so unlikely could happen within such a short period.
The main difference between now and 2016 is that, this time, we get to be home. And this time, everyone in the province, country, and even the world, feels and understands what we are going through. There is certainly a comfort in the shared human experience. And fortunately, this time around, we are way more adept at Hangouts and Zoom, and we have more opportunity to connect and sustain relationships through our new reality of online distance learning.
Plus, we are resilient. We all learned that in 2016. And we will learn it again here in 2020. We can adjust and find a new routine. We can support our students from home. We can adapt to teaching online temporarily. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Isolation and social distancing are difficult. This new reality is definitely surreal. But one thing a lot of us learned from our fire experience is that we can overcome challenges, obstacles and the unknown. We must seek any mental health support we need, but we can also lean on each other, even if it’s virtually.
After the fire, some people had a much harder time getting back to “normal” than others did. People like me came back to an unscathed home, but with evidence of the fire being only two homes away. Others came home to nothing but ashes. It was a truly devastating experience for all of us in different ways. What changed for me is that shared human experience. I always loved Fort McMurray — it has always been my home, where I was born and raised. Coming back to it charred and burned was difficult, but I knew, in time, it would be back to the luscious green forest it once was.
I grew from the experience and learned that I found comfort from people who had also been evacuated. I didn’t want to talk about it with people who didn’t know what I was feeling. Having lived a fairly sheltered and simple life, I hadn’t really felt anything like that before. Now, I realize that there is comfort and value to someone knowing what you are going through, to understanding some small ounce of what you are feeling. Well, during this pandemic, there is certainly the opportunity for that. We are all in this together, and it is through this shared human experience that we will overcome and prosper. ❚
Shannon Dube is a numeracy co-ordinator for Fort McMurray Public Schools.