Above & Beyond - How FMPSD Staff Helped Reunite Students During The Wildfire
There was no hesitation. When wildfires forced Fort McMurray’s mandatory evacuation on May 3rd, many students were left with their principals and teachers who went above and beyond to reunite them with families – some taking days.
With many areas of the city engulfed in smoke, and rapidly approaching fire, parents and caregivers were unable to reach students due to evacuations north and south of town. Traffic jams and closed roads added to the mayhem.
For Scott Barr, Principal, École McTavish Junior High School, reuniting students meant acting like a parent.
“On evacuation day, we had four students at the school until 11 p.m. I drove three of the four to an evacuation bus organized by the RCMP to get them to their parents, who were unable to get to us. We drove the last student to Anzac along with my family starting at 11:30 p.m.,” recalled Barr.
“The student, her two dogs, and two cats, came along. It took about two and a half hours to get to the turnoff, where we stopped to set out on foot. We started across the area between the two sides of the highway by the Anzac turnoff and as we did, her mom and dad came running across from the other side. It was an amazing reunion to witness and the parents’ gratitude was amazing. We were glad to have her, and her pets, returned to her parents. All of the students are like our kids during the day and so we just treated all of them that way.”
Shabana Nawaz, Principal, Fort McMurray Islamic School, was evacuated to hotel Chateau Nova along with 43 students.
“We still had 30 students left when Nova was evacuated to Anzac. And, five of the last six were picked up the next day on Wednesday evening. The last student’s parents got stuck north of town. They gave us permission and we drove her to Edmonton on Thursday, reuniting her with family friends that evening,” shared Nawaz.
“It has been a long journey with so much uncertainty. All I knew was to keep all the students safe till they got united. That was my first and foremost priority in this situation. I would have not left anyone on their own. The students had trust in us that they will be united with their family,” she added.
That trust was front and centre when Merrie-Rae Mitsopoulos, Principal, Dr. K. A. Clark School set off to reunite two of her students. The story was picked up by CTV, the Edmonton Journal, and Edmonton Sun.
“There were two Dr. Clark students (grade 7 boys) who evacuated with my two sons and me, and were in my care for several days. Both had parents who were evacuated to camps north of the city. We initially evacuated north to Syncrude Mildred Lake, but took a bus south to the Nexen Long Lake site near Anzac in the early hours (3:00 am) of May 4,” recalled Mitsopoulos.
“We were unable to contact one child’s parent until mid-morning on Wednesday, May 4 (such a relief to finally make that connection!). Later that day, we were evacuated from Nexen when fire was threatening the Anzac area. We ended up at my family’s home in St. Albert. The first student was reunited with his mother on May 5 at Edmonton Northlands. The second student was reunited with his mother on May 6, also at Northlands,” she added.
Kevin Bergen, Principal, Fort McMurray Composite High School, and Life Skills class teacher, Jennifer Currie along with Leona Gillies had the task of getting three of their severe needs students to their parents.
“Our Life Skills class needed more support. Many parents were north at site, or south at Nexen. By 5:30 it was apparent that we could wait no longer to evacuate, and packed up the remaining students and staff and headed south. We decided to continue on to Anzac, where we could reunite one of the students with his father, who was coming from Nexen, and then wait to connect the last two from there. When we arrived in Anzac, it was chaotic. We took over a fitness room upstairs, so our students could have some solace from the confusion around us. We connected one student with his father, and we continued to make contact with their parents, but it was evident they would not be able to get to us in time,” shared Bergen.
“We packed up our final student, and headed off to Edmonton, as his family was attempting to fly out with the help of Suncor, so they could meet. Our teacher, Jenn Currie, kept the student with her for the next two days, until she was finally able to hand him off to his parents. Jenn and Leona are to be commended for an outstanding level of care they provided for their students during the trying circumstances.”
These trying circumstances were front and centre at École Dickinsfield as well. The school population is over 700, so in addition to parent pickup, there are usually nine school buses that pick up students at the end of the day.
When Principal Paul Smith received word that most of the bus drivers were unavailable, school staff phoned parents to pick up as many students as possible directly from the school.
“In most cases parents were able to do so, but 50 bus students were still in the gym. Fortunately one bus driver did make it to the school, which left for Noralta Lodge,” recalled Smith.
By the time all was said and done Smith was left with two children who were brothers. Their parents had been downtown and were caught in traffic going north. Smith phoned the parents and let them know he would take them to his home in Timberlea, which was not yet under evacuation orders. However, roads around the school were in total gridlock so Smith walked home – about a kilometre away – with the children. With the continuous traffic gridlock, Smith ended up walking the boys further down to their father on Millennium Drive, and then returned to the school.
“It was now after 7 p.m., half an hour later I was able to join the masses heading out. The city was in total evacuation, but all students were safe with parents or other caregivers or on the bus, safe at Noralta,” he added.
Doug Nicholls, Superintendent, Fort McMurray Public School District (FMPSD) noted “how amazing FMPSD staff has been through and after the evacuation.”
“We are proud of our principals, teachers, and everyone who has been instrumental in getting our students safely to their parents. They went above and beyond during a highly strenuous situation. We are thankful,” Superintendent Nicholls noted.
Updated information about the Fort McMurray Public School District can be found at: fmpsdschools.ca
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