Sally Alderton, principal of Mount Dandenong Primary School, knew things were bad as she lay awake listening to storms ravage the area on a night back in June. She could hear trees crashing to the ground as the wind howled. But it wasn’t until the following morning that she got a true sense of the devastation. “I got a call from one of my colleagues at 6.30am telling me I shouldn’t drive into school that morning.”
But with 18 of 177 students booked in for on-site learning during the snap lockdown, she was determined to stay open for them. “As I was driving up to the school, the scale of the disaster became more and more apparent,” she says. So much so that she was edging her car into the wrong lane to dodge downed power lines and partly felled trees hanging precariously over the road. “I was following a line of traffic all doing the same, but we were all probably being quite silly.”
Sally was eventually stopped by a police blockade, some 50 metres from the school, just before the William Ricketts sanctuary. She swung into action, alerting parents to keep their kids at home. Mobile reception was spotty – but, working together, she and her staff managed to get the message out any way they could. The area remained without power for an extended period, and it was several days before the school was even accessible on foot.
“When I made it to the school, it was so shocking,” she recalls. Massive mountain ash trees lay broken, torn from the ground, their massive network of roots eerily exposed. An ancient redwood behind the school was gone. The pines that had crowded around its feet stood no chance.
“I looked out there where the children would build fairy gardens and play hide-and-seek and it was destroyed. That was what upset me the most, because I know how special it is to them.”
And yet, Sally is also keenly aware of how fortunate they were. “No one died, which is what we’re all grateful for – and the fact that our building was fine was almost like a miracle.”
“Coming out of the lockdown, everyone was so looking forward to being back at school and that was just ripped out from underneath us.”
Still, it was heart-rending to see the township in ruins. Hundreds of downed trees blocked every major road, trapping some parents and staff at home. Others tragically lost their properties. A huge tree ploughed through Mount Dandenong Preschool. It may be demolished.
When Sally called Nicki Wood, principal of Gladesville Primary School, to see if they could enact the emergency management plan in place for bushfires, the latter was only too ready to make it happen, once the lockdown lifted.
“We had 103 of our 177 kids turn up at Gladesville that day,” Sally says. “It was hard for them – because, as beautiful an offer as it was, the kids were obviously a little bit nervous about going to a brand-new school. Especially after what had, for many of them, been quite a traumatic experience.”
Nicki and her team made them feel “super-welcome” and, even though it was “squishy”, being able to play together and make new friends was a huge help. The Gladesville staff bent over backwards to make it work, says Sally. “That was really beautiful to see.”
She is glad to be back on site now. “There’s nowhere like home, and the kids were really keen to get back, as were the teachers.”
The school counsellor is running a program called ‘Seasons for Growth’, which is about trauma healing. “It’s based on the seasons of the year, so it looks at feelings of grief and loss through that lens, and how change is just a normal part of life and what you can do to make your own peace with that.”
The staff rallied around for one another too. “It was such a difficult time. Coming out of the lockdown, everyone was so looking forward to being back at school and that was just ripped out from underneath us. And the majority of our staff live in the area and had no power.”
Meanwhile, with government support slow to arrive, the broader community set to work, offering everything from free meals to spare generators. “That’s what is such an amazing and special thing about this part of the world – that community,” Sally says. “And that’s why I love this school.”