If Aidan and Taya Asher have to write an essay about how they spent their summer vacation, they will have plenty of stories to share.
In just two months, they’ve camped in Jasper and Banff, visited the Calgary Zoo, checked out Drumheller, hung out with family in Saskatchewan and spent a night in a theme room at West Edmonton Mall.
Aidan says the best part of his time away from school in Fort McMurray has been staying in a campground, “playing with my friends and going tenting and stuff.”
The worst part happened before summer even began.
“Finding out that our house burnt,” Aidan says.
Melanie Asher has made a point of keeping her kids busy to keep their minds away from home. The family’s Saprae Creek house, which Damian Asher finished building just 18 months ago, burned to the ground during the Fort McMurray fire. Ever since, Melanie and the kids have been living in the family’s trailer at a campground south of Boyle, Alberta while Damian deals with the logistics of rebuilding.
“I think you have to make the best of it,” Melanie says. “Otherwise you can get really down and upset about everything.”
In less than two weeks, the family will return to Fort McMurray so the kids can start classes at a new school – Father Turcotte School. Their former school, Good Shepherd, is located in one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray and is still in the early stages of remediation work.
“My kids are pretty resilient and they’re looking forward to going back to school,” Melanie says.
Preparations are underway to accommodate thousands of students back into Fort McMurray schools. Based on survey results, a spokesperson for Fort McMurray Catholic Schools says the district expects about 90 per cent of the student population to return this September. Doug Nicholls, the Superintendent of Fort McMurray Public Schools, says he expects approximately 85 per cent of students will return.
Every single school in both districts sustained some level of smoke damage.
Nicholls says in a “monumental” effort, about 500 restoration workers have spent weeks inside the schools to remove the residue.
Fort McMurray Catholic Schools has also done extensive restoration.
According to a news release from the district, the schools were “thoroughly cleaned including all surfaces and HVAC systems. Supplies and material that could not be effectively or safely restored were removed and will be replaced.”
Teaching staff from both districts are also taking mental health sessions to prepare for student evacuees. Shannon Noble, assistant superintendent with the Fort McMurray Public School District, says she expects approximately 20 per cent of students will experience anxiety or some sort of issue as a result of the fire. The district has assigned a mental health therapist to specifically look after the needs of students evacuees.
Fort McMurray Composite High School Principal Kevin Bergen says he is bracing for when students are back in the place they fled together.
Watch below: Kevin Bergen, the principal of Fort McMurray Composite High School, talks about how the return to school this year will be “like no other” for Fort McMurray students after May’s catastrophic wildfire.
“We know that when people suffer trauma like that, that the most important thing as a support network for them is to allow them an opportunity to tell their story,” Bergen says. “Telling their story is what helps people get through these situations and I’m sure that the first couple weeks of school are going to be a lot of listening…we need to be listening.”
Students return to classes on Sept. 6.
Melanie Asher says her family plans to return a few days before. They will stay in a shop on their lot until they can rebuild the exact same home they lost in the fire.
“We’ve kind of had the mindset that as long as we’re moving forward, we’ll be OK.”
Watch below: There was no farewell marking the end of the school year but there will be a big welcome back for students in Fort McMurray. The last time they were in their classrooms is the same day a wildfire forced them to flee their community. Lisa Hilsenteger helped some of them flee on a school bus and is now getting ready to welcome students back.