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Schools gear additional resources towards mental health needs in light of wildfire evacuation impacts

Since the wildfire evacuation order was lifted two weeks ago, schools had to start late and make some adjustments.
Don Reid, principal of St. Patrick High School, says extra counsellors are present “to offer support for our students and for our families if they need it.” Kaicheng Xin/NNSL photo

Since the wildfire evacuation order was lifted two weeks ago, schools had to start late and make some adjustments.

Yasemin Heyck, principal of Range Lake North School, said teachers prepared classrooms and communicated with parents in less time than usual.

“Just as usual, we got ready for the school year but in a shortened time span… usually we do a lot of professional development in the first four days before kids come back and we really compacted that,” she said.

Heyck also mentioned that academic planning is a secondary concern right now.

“I think what’s less obvious is that not all of our families would have had an easy time during the evacuation, and those kinds of things take a while to show up,” she said. “So we just have to be really mindful that some of our kids are more fragile than others, and so that’s why I really wanted people just to really focus on a calm and quiet welcoming start, and to really spend time building community in their classrooms, building relationships with each other, getting to the academic part a bit later.”

In addition to ensuring that everyone was safe and getting back into the routine of school, Heyck said there were still some renovations that needed to be done.

“Like some new flooring and some wall work,” she said. “We came back to find all our atrium flooring here was unfinished, so there were areas where we could walk and couldn’t walk,” she explained.

As the work is still ongoing, some areas of the school will temporarily have limited access due to safety concerns. The construction team will tackle the project after school hours, including weekends.

Don Reid, the principal of St. Patrick High School, described the situation as an “extended summer break,” and he said the school is now running normally.

“So our attendance is actually quite good, kids are happy to get back and get into the routine, that’s the big thing,” said Reid. “They want to get into a routine and structure and know what’s going on in the upcoming days.”

During the first day of school, there were child and youth care counsellors on site to help people overcome difficulties and struggles provoked by trauma.

As attendance reached 80 per cent after the Sept. 14 return to class, the school had extra counsellors on hand. The evacuation had the potential to affect students in a variety of ways, so it was best to be prepared, he suggested.

“So those people will be able to offer support for our students and for our families if they need it,” he said. “Overall, people seem very happy and very eager and excited to get back in.”

The school also has a student wellness team that includes a certified counsellor, a number of emotional support workers, program support teachers and leadership resiliency personnel. A total of nine staff members will be at the school to help students with the wellness programs.

The Child and Youth Counsellors program, sponsored by the territorial government, deploys counsellors to NWT schools and communities to provide direct mental health and wellness services to children, youth and their families.

There was also time set aside for staff members to get to know each other, if they didn’t already.

“I had a chance to work with them prior to our first new staff orientation… it was good for them to meet and get into the routine before the students started on Thursday,” said Reid.

He remains optimistic about the upcoming days, even though educators missed a couple of days of preparation. He said they will postpone some of the things that weren’t as important to another time, and “find different ways to do things.”