Returning to the classroom after four months away is providing a sense of normalcy to the Catholic education community in Fort McMurray.
“It was such a warm day, lots of hugs, lots of smiles, lots of reconnecting” when school resumed on Sept. 6, said Leslie McPherson, co-principal of Father Turcotte Catholic School in the northern Alberta city that was threatened with extinction in the spring when a raging wildfire forced the evacuation of the city’s inhabitants.
“It’s allowed us the sense of returning home even though it is not our original building.”
For this year staff and students from Father Beauregard Catholic Elementary School, where McPherson has been the principal since 2013, will be joining their peers at Father Turcotte Catholic School. The Abasand neighbourhood where Father Beauregard is located remains off limits to the public due to the residual effects of the fire that cleared the city of about 80,000.
Students and staff from another of the scorched city’s elementary schools, the Good Shepherd Community School, will also be joining Father Beauregard as guests at Father Turcotte for the 2016-17 school year as its neighbourhood, Beacon Hill, is also still off limits.
“We’ve been very lucky that we’ve been able to bring all the staff from all of the three schools,” said McPherson. “That has allowed the students to have familiar faces no matter what school they originally attended.”
Although the extent of the damage to Father Beauregard and the Good Shepherd is still being assessed, superintendent George McGuigan said the cost of getting the district’s other nine schools operational for this September was in the “millions of dollars.”
All of the school materials left behind following the May 3 evacuation notice — from unopened packages of pencils to binders bursting full of papers and posters hanging on the walls — had to be bagged, tagged and removed from the classroom due to exposure to contaminants from the fire.
Along with removing items from the classrooms, the entire insides of the schools — two high schools and seven elementary schools — required a thorough cleaning.
“That was quite an undertaking,” said McGuigan. “There was quite a bit of smoke damage in our schools. Basically it was a top to bottom restoration.”
And with the two off-limits schools in some of the hardest hit areas of the city, the work is far from over.
Still, McGuigan said he has been pleased with the progress thus far.
“Our schools are in great shape,” he said. “Students are back in and excited and happy to be back.”
To help ensure the students remain positive, extra effort is being made within the Catholic school system to monitor mental health. For the duration of the school year a trained mental health counsellor will be available to students and staff in each of the nine opened schools. These services come at no cost to the individual and are available during the school’s hours of operation.
“We’ve added a mental health piece for our students and families to ensure that we are looking after them,” said McGuigan. “Our youth are pretty resilient, they bounce back pretty quick. It is we adults that sometimes have difficulties grasping and dealing with issues.”
And just because some families are back in their homes and some children are back in their schools, said McPherson, everyone has settled back in.
“For many of our staff and students this isn’t over yet, they’re not back in the homes.”
She estimated the homes of every student who attended Father Beauregard last year were affected by the fire, while about 60 to 70 families at Good Shepherd last year faced the same fate. For some families it will likely be more than a year before they can return to their homes.
“We have families still living in hotels,” she said. “Everyone is still suffering. Even the families that are back home, they need their lives to get back to whatever our new normal looks like.”
Re-establishing that sense of normal is something the schools can help achieve.
“Now that the parents can put their children back into the schools . . . it’s a huge weight off their shoulders,” she said. “We’ve still got a long way to go and (families) still need support. It could be up to the next three to five years before people are back to where they were before.”