Parents of some 12,000 students caught up in the Fort McMurray, Alta. wildfire disaster can send their children to schools in the communities where they have taken refuge, the provincial government said Saturday.
Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said schools across the province are prepared to welcome students from the Fort McMurray area.
"We have been in contact with all 61 public school boards in the province and have asked that they open their doors to our displaced students,'' Larivee said, noting that school systems in Calgary and Edmonton are best able to absorb students.
"Our schools across Alberta will be prepared to accommodate you,'' she said.
Students from Fort McMurray Composite High School are released early as wildfire burns nearby in Fort McMurray, Alberta May 3, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
The Calgary Board of Education is one of many that has already begun registering evacuees. Larivee said that schools in Edmonton and Lac la Biche have also signed up some students. Others in smaller centres are gearing up to offer as much help as they can.
Diane Bauer, assistant superintendent of the Lakeland Catholic School District, said in a recent interview that schools in cities such as Bonnyville and Cold Lake have been instructed to open the door to anyone arriving from Fort McMurray.
"Our message to our principals is, 'you take them all,''' Bauer said of the students. "... If there's any individual family needs that we can help with, whether it's transportation or breakfast or lunch, our schools would be happy to accommodate and support these families.''
Bauer said enrolling in school may be a way for children to regain a sense of normalcy as their home community grapples with the enormity of the damage wrought by the fire.
"Our message to our principals is, 'you take them all.'"
For some families, however, enrolling in a new school may not be the answer.
Steve Andrejiw said his eight-year-old daughter was deeply traumatized by the fire and ensuing flight from her lifelong home, but seemed to turn a corner once she saw familiar faces from her school at a gathering for displaced people in Edmonton.
"That's what's made her OK was seeing that there's kids in her class in the same situation, that they are OK,'' he said in an interview last week.
"Their teacher was there hugging her and telling her about all the other kids that she'd run into.''
Andrejiw said it may be worthwhile to wait to allow his daughter to resume her education in a familiar environment rather than putting her through the upheaval of a potentially short-term transfer.
Officials must determine how many schools are still fit for use. (Photo: CP)
Whether such a transition really would be short-term is the key question dogging local officials.
Politicians, school board leaders and principals started meeting last week to gauge the damage to Fort McMurray's schools and assess when people may be able to return.
Phil Meagher, chief deputy superintendent of the Fort McMurray public school board, said he doesn't anticipate any speedy or easy solutions. Officials must determine how many schools are still fit for use. Teachers will have to see if their homes are intact and if they wish to return.
Even when those immediate issues are resolved, Meagher said the mass relocation could have future implications.
"It's always a balancing act,'' he said. "Let's say a number of our students don't come back, then that will mean we don't need the x number of teachers that I've planned for next year. It's very difficult.''