Grade 6 student Madison Atyeo talks about her summer in Andrea Organ’s class at Timberlea Public School.
First day of school marked by hope for Fort McMurray residents
Tales of summer adventures are standard fare on the first day of school, but these stories had a whole other layer of meaning when Fort McMurray students and staff shared them on Sept. 6.
Students and teachers throughout the city spent time discussing what they did during and since a massive wildfire forced them to evacuate on the afternoon of May 3.
In Andrea Organ’s Grade 6 class at Timberlea Public School, students talked about the places they visited over the summer (Alcatraz, Disney cruise, Cold Lake), and offered responses to the question “What did you learn about yourself from the evacuation?”
The answers mentioned fixing quads, fixing technology and not being scared of the fire. Then came the one that made the teacher’s eyes well up.
“That my family is more important than different things,” said Madison Atyeo.
Addressing the fire directly was part of an orchestrated effort learned from trauma experts from the Calgary Board of Education, who provided training to public school personnel.
“It’s all about listening to stories, because we all have stories from when we left, said Scott Barr, principal of École McTavish Junior High Public School.
On the first day, the school’s students and teachers spent the whole morning in their home rooms getting to know each other and giving voice to their feelings. Teachers even had scripts to follow, if necessary.
“Today is about relationships. It’s about making the kids feel at home and safe,” Barr said. “Everything else can wait.”
Both the Catholic and public districts trained their staff on dealing with trauma and hired counsellors for every school. The health region has brought in additional counselling staff and the province has opened a downtown walk-in clinic. With those resources in place, teachers have also been coached to recognize when a situation is beyond their job description.
“Teachers’ wheelhouse is, of course, teaching, and we are not expecting our teachers to be counsellors, social workers,” said Doug Nicholls, superintendent of the public school district. “There are tremendous resources in Fort McMurray right now to assist our schools and our teachers.”
George McGuigan, superintendent of Fort McMurray Catholic Schools, stressed that being back in school is not an end point that signals that life is going to be fine from now on, and that emotional recovery is an ongoing process with triggers along the way.
“We just need to make sure we’re fully aware and paying attention and when we see that somebody is struggling, be it a staff member or a student, then we’re there to pick them up.”
Despite the preparations that took place before the big day, there were uncertainties prior to the opening bell.
“A lot of nervousness with teachers. It’s been four months since they’ve been working with their kids,” said Waleed Najmeddine, principal of Timberlea Public School.
“They’re not really sure how well the kids have coped over those last four months and how much support they’re going to need.”
Of course, students aren’t the only ones affected by the fire. Junior high teacher Kathy Vladicka was one of several teachers who said it was a struggle to deal with the lack of closure around the sudden end to 2015/16.
“Not getting the end of the school year with my Grade 9s was very difficult for me. It certainly made me realize how much I love teaching, not to be able to get that end experience with them,” Vladicka said. “Being back is at least one more step towards normal.”
Vladicka said it breaks her heart to drive around and see the devastation that’s visible around the city, and though she’s very thankful that her home wasn’t damaged, she still feels a sense of loss.
“We all lost something, for sure,” she said.
“It’s a shared experience, though, that I think bonds Fort McMurrayites now in a very unique way.”
Preparing staff was just one of a myriad of issues that had to be addressed in order to pull off a successful first day of school. Orchestrated by the insurance companies and conducted by a contractor, restoration work began in early June. Personnel from the restoration company cleaned the schools from top to bottom, scrutinizing and documenting every item, throwing away anything they deemed too damaged. Teachers’ personal items were bagged and heaped in hallways and gyms. Some ductwork had to be removed so it could be cleaned properly.
The loss of teaching resources and personal items from their classrooms has been a challenge for teachers and upsetting for some, said Nancy Ball, president of Fort McMurray Local No. 48. Having received about $155,000 in direct donations, the local provided $220 to each of its members to help with replacing classroom items.
These belongings aren’t covered by the districts’ insurance, and one of the lessons Fort McMurray teachers have learned is that homeowner’s policies vary in their coverage.
“It’s really important that teachers check their policies,” Ball said.
Districts only gained access to their schools in early August, so it was a race to get the facilities ready in time. Teachers spent days setting up their classrooms, doing their best to replace items that were too smoke damaged to keep.
The transformation that’s taken place in the four months since has been phenomenal, said McGuigan, who recalled standing on the roofs of his district’s schools just two weeks after the fire and looking around at the devastation.
“It’s hard to believe all that was accomplished,” he said.
Nicholls said that all school staff, including teachers, pulled together to get themselves and the schools ready.
“It’s really an incredible story that our teachers have been involved in, and they’ve certainly risen to the occasion,” he said.
When this school year is over, Nicholls expects to look back and judge it based on two words: “leadership” and “resiliency.”
“We’ll be talking about leadership classroom by classroom, and we’ll be talking about resiliency classroom by classroom. Those two characteristics and strategies will ensure that our students have a very successful year,” he said.
Among the logistical issues that required addressing was the fact that, between the two school districts, three existing schools are too smoke damaged to open and the opening of a new school currently being built has been delayed until the new year. All this means that some schools are acting as temporary homes for staff and students from other schools.
One of those temporary homes is Father Turcotte School, which has absorbed students and staff from two displaced schools and integrated them with its own people. The school’s new motto is “Three schools, one family.”
Co-principals Leslie McPherson and Laura Dennis are upbeat about the arrangement, even though they face many challenges, such as a Grade 1 class with 36 students. That situation will be alleviated in the coming months when six new portables are installed.
Looking back at the last four months, beginning with fleeing their respective schools as their backyards burned, to the much anticipated first day of classes, the principals say they’ve ridden an emotional roller coaster.
“It was the best feeling in the world to see those kids this morning and the hugs,” McPherson said. “That was probably the best therapy we’ve had in a long time.”
All is not lost
More than 40 teachers lost their homes to the fire. One of those is Shelley Kellington, who lived in the hard-hit Beacon Hill neighbourhood and also worked in the neighbourhood school, which will remain closed for the school year, its staff and students temporarily placed at Dr. K.A. Clark School.
Kellington’s son and his family lived on the same block and lost their home. Kellington also lost thousands of dollars worth of classroom materials to smoke damage, a loss not covered by insurance.
Yet Kellington has found plenty to be thankful for. For example, before fleeing the neighbourhood, her daughter-in-law was able to stop by Kellington’s house and save some photographs. Also, Kellington and her husband were able to buy back their 1968 Buick Skylark from the insurance company and are restoring it. The most amazing part of her experience has been the outpouring of generosity she’s received.
“I had parcels coming right away from Florida, California, Wisconsin, Ontario,” she said. “Even though I have about a quarter of [the classroom resources] I had before, I just feel like I have an abundance.”
Despite the positives she’s taken away from her losses, Kellington wasn’t sure how she’d feel when the new school year started.
“I was a little bit worried about how I’d react,” she said. “It’s actually been more healing than anything, just being back together.”
Overall, she said her experience has changed her outlook.
“Before, I suppose if you didn’t have purple paper it would be a crisis for your art project, but really, it kind of put everything in perspective, what you really need, and it’s not more things.”
Parts of her neighbourhood look like a war zone cordoned off by temporary fencing. Where houses once stood just past the entrance to Beacon Hill, all that stands now is the odd blackened tree skeleton, a single concrete chimney and the remnants of a concrete garage, all blanketed in dried grey foam that looks like soot. Each lot is defined by a concrete foundation and a pile of metal debris — remnants of vehicles, ducting, etc. — on what used to be the driveway. Workers in white hazmat suits can be seen poking through the ruins, while access to some areas is still being restricted by private security guards.
Kellington said she isn’t sure when her home will be rebuilt as she’s awaiting information from her insurance company, but she returns to the area regularly to check on progress.
“It’s better every time we go now,” she said. “It’s the way it is right now but with the progress you can see that it’s going to be fresh and new.” ❚
Grade 6 student Madison Atyeo talks about her summer in Andrea Organ’s class at Timberlea Public School.
Early childhood teacher Chelsa MacKinnon greets a tentative youngster at Timberlea Public School.
Grade 2 teacher Catherine Aasen engages with her class at Timberlea Public School on the first morning of the new school year.
Junior high teacher Kathy Vladicka of École McTavish school organizes her students into groups on the first day of school.
Father Turcotte School co-principals Laura Dennis (left) and Leslie McPherson show off the area that’s being prepped for six portables that are expected to alleviate space pressures at their combined three-in-one school.
All that is left of homes in this area of Beacon Hill are hollowed out foundations and piles of metal rubble.