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Australia Bushfire-affected schoolchildren to find it tough going back to class this week

21:50  27 january  2020
21:50  27 january  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person holding a baby: Sierra Bowen with her sons Zade, 7, Koha, 5, and Renn, 18 months. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)© Provided by ABC Health Sierra Bowen with her sons Zade, 7, Koha, 5, and Renn, 18 months. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)

Families in areas that bushfires ripped through over summer are preparing to send their children back to class today — and schools are getting ready to take them.

Like many people around the nation, Sierra Bowen and her family have not had much of a holiday after their home — on 1.6 hectares of farming land at Mount Torrens in the Adelaide Hills — burnt down in December.

"We found out in the morning when we came back via a farmer who lives near us that our whole property had been wiped," Ms Bowen said.

"It was really tough — the kids didn't really know what was happening, they were also very scared."

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The family now lives in a smaller rental property in Lobethal, but the scorched land of the Adelaide Hills is still their backyard.

"Bringing them back especially to the whole hills, not just our house but the whole area that's been extremely affected, was really difficult and they still find that difficult now, driving around and seeing the devastation," Ms Bowen said.

Her seven-year-old son Zade said it made him sad seeing the blackened trees that line the Adelaide Hills.

"It feels like everything has burnt down … but we have a warm, tight house," he said.

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Australian Primary Principals Association president Malcolm Elliott said teachers around Australia were now trained to identify anxiety in students, as students will respond differently.

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He said teachers were now on the front line and it was important they too were counselled.

"Students are likely to spontaneously offer up their feelings, and what it is that they know, or their fears about what's going on, and this will be to the people they trust hugely — and that is their teachers," he said.

"There's no rule that says that children aren't to mention what's happened to an uncle, an aunt, or a close family member, or the loss of their house."

Mr Elliott said school represented a touchstone of normality and an expectation that life would continue to move forward.

"School gives children an atmosphere in which they're looked after, they're learning and their lives are progressing, while at the same time parents are perhaps free to continue their working life or make repairs to their property damaged by the fires," he said.

"There will be cases where some children will be attending schools other than the one that was originally in their locale because it's been damaged or in some cases even burnt down."

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Mr Elliott said there were discussions happening with the Federal Government about the possibility of engaging retired teachers and retired school principals as extra support in schools in bushfire-affected areas.

"Teachers will now have roughly 25 students in their class, all of whom will have, to a greater or lesser extent, the effect of bushfires playing in their minds," he said.

"Whether it's a school a long way removed from the bushfires, this is a very big news item and there's concern not only about the loss of life and loss of property but of course what's happened to the animals."

A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education said the Government was providing $8 million for support through Beyond Blue for the 1,800 early childhood services and 1,400 schools impacted by the bushfires.

"An extra 25 mental health liaison officers and support clinicians will work with local schools and early childhood education and care services in bushfire-affected communities," she said.

'Hope takes teamwork'

The Adelaide Hills' Lobethal Primary School was one school where the fires came too close for comfort.

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Principal Toni Burford said two dads and the CFS defended the school as the fire crept towards the playground.

"It came way too close, it's come up over the hill, threatened homes — there's homes lost only 500 metres away from the school," she said.

"The children were very distressed when I saw them two days after the fire had happened they were really teary and scared that we came so close to losing the school."

Ms Burford said staff have met with social workers and support staff from the Department for Education to train them in more depth about mental wellbeing for students.

"We learnt to recognise symptoms of stress and anxiety, what's a common reaction and what's a not so common reaction as time goes by," she said.

"To know what to look for, how to help them build resilience and have that balance of not rescuing them but helping them to bounce back."

She said the school would be working hard to have more opportunities for mindfulness activities to de-stress and build resilience.

"We know there are many layers to what children and families have experienced … so we'll give time for children to talk about it," she said.

Ms Burford said the primary school would use the mantra this year of "Hope takes teamwork" to give children the sense that together they can create change.

"I think they've seen that living in action in their community," she said.

"Lobethal has responded remarkably — they've been a generous community — so the children would have seen hope takes teamwork already — and I want to build on that

theme."

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