Students affected by the bushfires in New South Wales have returned to school for the first time since this season’s devastating fires.
- Bobin Public School and Wytaliba Public School in northern NSW have been rebuilt with new demountable buildings following extensive bushfire damage
- Parents at Bermagui Public School attended a meeting on the first day of term to discuss the school’s fire plan and evacuation procedure as a nearby fire remains uncontained
- Preschool teachers in bushfire-affected towns on the south coast have been provided with trauma counselling in preparation for their students’ return
The tiny Bobin Public School on the NSW Mid North coast was destroyed by fire three months ago and Wytaliba Public School on the Northern Tablelands was extensively damaged by the deadly bushfires in November last year.
With the schools rebuilt they were operational from day one of the new school year.
Glen Innes Severn Mayor Carol Sparks said it would be a special day for the children at the Wytaliba school and the entire community.
“We’re still recovering,” she said.
“The children are of the most importance and it’s very good that the Education Department has been building over Christmas and has the school ready for the children to have some sort of normality in their lives.”
Bushfire destroyed the historic Bobin Public School, which dates back to 1883. (ABC News)
School’s reconstruction a ‘symbol’ for village
The Bobin Public School, north-west of Taree, lost all of its buildings but the library in the Rumba Dump fire three months ago.
Since then work has been underway to clear the remains of the asbestos-riddled buildings, bring in three demountable buildings, rebuild pathways and shelters, and restore communications.
Acting Principal Sarah Parker was expecting a big first day for the school’s 15 students.
“The whole community is watching this reconstruction. It’s a symbol for the reconstruction of our village in a way,” she said.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing the children’s faces when they come in,” she said.
“It’ll be a really big surprise for them to see that it’s actually looking beautiful again, not just rebuilt, but actually beautiful again.”
Ms Parker said the whole community in Bobin had been invested in the school.
“Everybody feels they own a bit of the school,” she said.
“You’ve either been to the school, or you’ve had your children go to the school, and so it’s in our hearts.
“To see it rebuilt has been a really important part of our initial recovery process.”
Rebuilding the school in Bobin near Taree on the NSW Mid North Coast. (ABC News: Emma Siossian)
Schools in active fire areas
On the state’s Far South Coast, Frances Matters said she was nervous about leaving her children at Bermagui Public School and Narooma High School while there were still active fires very close to both towns.
“I’m okay with the primary school being the fact that it is in Bermagui and I work in Bermagui,” she said.
She attended a community meeting at the school on the first day where she said the principal spoke about their fire plan and evacuation procedure.
“We are allowed to go pick the kids up, which is a huge thing, because when the events happen you really need your kids with you,” Ms Matters said.
“It’s too scary to not have them so I’m feeling alright about the [location of the] primary school.”
Calls for more fire preparedness support for people with disabilities
When Lynn Armington’s house caught fire, she managed to get her husband, who is blind and in a wheelchair, to safety, but the couple lost everything else.
However, Ms Matters said she did not feel as comfortable about sending her step-son, who has started Year 9, to Narooma High School which is about half an hour away.
“Narooma has a lot of active fire around it. They haven’t had the force of fire that Bermagui has had,” she said.
Ms Matters said despite the knowledge that the army and the Rural Fire Service would defend the school she was concerned about its bushland surroundings.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that [school] bus is nearly empty going to Narooma on the day that there’s a north-wester,” she said.
“We have had so many road closures. So many times we’ve been cut off from civilisation, [when] there’s no communication, no power and I don’t want him stuck in Narooma for days and [then] we’re hit [by a fire].
“Every mother I’ve spoken to in Bermagui is concerned about sending their kids to Narooma for school.”
On Thursday Ms Matters said there was an active fire that was close to Bermagui which came within 150 metres on the northern side of the town.
“My daughter did have a breakdown on Thursday when the fire was big,” she said.
“You need your kids with you — that’s priority.
“I gathered the kids around and then I was fine, the anxiety just went.
“Even though there was this massive bushfire coming towards us, I was a lot calmer knowing that the kids were there.
“I’m more worried about the aftermath, when it does all settle down and the adrenaline high goes, because I feel like everyone in Bermagui is on this adrenaline high constantly at the moment.”
The school has brought in full-time counsellors to provide support to students.
‘I’m seeing traumatised people’
Moruya-based relationships counsellor, Jan Ryan, has specialised in trauma, grief and loss.
As part of her work with Relationships Australia she has been visiting preschools in bushfire-affected communities to assist teachers and staff to be emotionally ready when parents and children return to the classroom.
“My 8-year old son found his footy in the debris — now his only possession in the world,” writes Arlo Ireland from Jeremadra. (Facebook: Arlo Ireland)
“What I am seeing is traumatised people trying to support traumatised people,” Ms Ryan said.
“I’ve spoken to staff who’ve lost property, who’ve nearly died trying to save properties, who have found bodies — horrible stories.
“Whether it’s preschool or primary school or high school, the whole community’s been exposed to what’s happening and it’s not like the fire has passed through and gone — it’s a present danger.”
Ms Ryan said it was important for parents to reassure their children that school was a safe place.
“I encourage parents not to want to hang on to their children and keep them home,” she said.
“Even if the child is anxious, don’t let your anxiety be contagious.”
School saved, breakfast and lunch provided
In total more than 800 homes have been destroyed by bushfire on the Far South Coast since December.
Behind the statistics are families who have lost their homes and fled fires, others who spent their school holidays in evacuation centres, and parents and carers who have done their best to help children feel safe and supported.
In the small community of Mogo, south of Batemans Bay, over 40 homes were lost when the Clyde Mountain fire impacted on New Year’s Eve but to the relief of many, the town’s public school was saved.
The school in Mogo was saved when fire tore through the village on the South Coast. (ABC News)
“We like to say that we’ve been scorched but we’re still standing,” said Lyndall Schuchmann, the relieving principal of Mogo Public School.
“We’ve lost our outdoor learning centre, our students made a gunyah on the grounds — that’s gone — and the beautiful bush around the school is very charred and scarred.
“We are very lucky that no other buildings have been impacted.”
The school would provide routine and structure for its students and their families, who have all been affected by the fire, Ms Schuchmann said.
“Parents can help their children by getting them here on time, so they have time for a play before they go into class, and by listening to them when they get home,” she said.
“If their homes aren’t the way that they used to be, it’s all about maintaining that routine for them here at school.”
Breakfast and lunch would be provided for the students for the first two weeks of the school term to ease the pressure on parents, and an additional counsellor has been placed at the school every day for the first four weeks.
Part of their role would be to make recommendations for ongoing support throughout the term, particularly for students who were not able to open up and talk about their experiences straight away.
Demountables built to safer standard
The Glen Innes Severn Council said the new Wytaliba Public School had been rebuilt to better fire safety standards.
Ms Sparks said a lot of work had been done to get the school ready.
“They’ve had to level the site,” she said.
“Over the years there’s been demountables put there on structures, so that’s how the fire got in underneath, so we’ve tried to make it safe for the future.”
The students of Wytaliba witnessed first-hand the savage blaze that destroyed their school. (ABC News: Paige Cockburn)
At Bobin Public School there had not been any discussion as to whether permanent buildings would be built.
“I think we’ll have demountables on the site for the foreseeable future,” Ms Parker said.
She said it has not just been the students who have benefitted from the rebuilding works at the school.
“The assets management unit actually employed all local contractors and they have been working so hard in really hot conditions, long hours and they all look so happy to be here,” Ms Parker said.
“They’ve put in such an effort and that’s why it’s come together, the whole asset management unit on the Mid North Coast has pulled together this miracle, really … we’re so grateful to them.”
Ms Matters said despite her concerns about the uncontained fires she still believed sending children back to school was good for them.
“Getting back into routine is really important so I’m all for that when the weather’s okay,” she said.
“I know going back to work certainly helped everybody in town to start to feel normal again.
“My daughter couldn’t wait, she was dressed and ready at 7 o’clock this morning to go back to school.”
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