The month of November changed the lives of many in Nooksack Valley. For every student at Sumas Elementary, the flooding also altered the way school looked.
The mid-November flood waters ravaged the town of Sumas—and many folks in Everson and the surrounding area—and it flooded the current Sumas Elementary building, rendering it unusable. But students still needed a place to learn, so as the community rallied to help neighbors the district put their own helping plan in place, working to house classrooms of Sumas students at Nooksack Elementary, Everson Elementary and Nooksack Valley Middle School. The temporary plan is in place until the new building, already under construction, opens.
The first day back for Sumas students was Tuesday, Nov. 30. "Teachers and staff at all three schools helped Sumas teachers re-create their classrooms," says Matt Galley, superintendent. "Some are looking nearly identical to what they left behind. I cannot understate the amazing job our staff did to get Sumas teachers moved to the other three schools."
Students in grades 1, 2 and 4, along with pre kindergartners now attend Sumas Elementary at Everson Elementary. Kindergartners and third grade attends at Nooksack Elementary and fifth grade and specialized resource have moved to the middle school.
"Rebuilding our classrooms physically and emotionally has been a big challenge, but also an opportunity to become an even closer-knit group," says Abbie Ball, a Sumas teacher now at Everson. "The Friday we went through our classrooms was probably the most emotionally draining days we have faced as a staff. And it truly did bring many of us to tears. Processing the loss together made it bearable."
Add in the more than 20 days of lost instruction, families still displaced from their homes, the transportation logistics required to get students from around the county into school and the loss of time each day, the need to rebuild lost curriculum and simply the loss of normalness all equate to a challenging time for the students.
But with challenge comes opportunity. "The community support is phenomenal," says Amy Moss, Sumas teacher now at Everson. "Whether its new books for our libraries, offering to share materials, understanding the long bus rides, being open and understanding when given yet another change of information, people have shown up for us in so many ways. That has made this difficult time so much easier."
Ball says she doesn't have the words to describe the amount of encouragement felt from people across the country, recounting how she's received boxes of supplies from as far away as New York. "People I don't know are having boxes of books sent to my house," Ball says. "Families who have lost their homes are purchasing book boxes for our classroom. The caring notes of encouragement along with each gift has brought me to tears on a regular basis."
Traci Koranda, a Sumas teacher now at Nooksack, says it warms her heart to experience the level of kindness she's seen, from the cleaning out and moving of the salvaged items at the school to teachers helping set up the classrooms to the gifts of replacement supplies. She says Meridian High School chose to "adopt" her classroom and has collected a bounty of supplies. Other schools have helped too, such as Lynden's Bernice Vossbeck Elementary donating new library supplies.
"Most of all I am so thankful for the trust our parents have given us," Koranda says. "With students spread out across the district and the county, many are transporting to three different buildings and managing the difference schedules as well. My whole class has returned, and I think that is amazing. The children have been so resilient. They are finding a new normal and helping me to find joy every day."
Megan Tran, a Sumas third-grade teacher now at Nooksack Elementary, says the students are all at "different stages" in coping with the trauma, but the students have adjusted well to the new classroom and school.
With so much change around them, the Sumas students still need to focus on academics. Doing so at a new building with students arriving at different times due to transportation logistics and unique living circumstances has created an added layer to overcome. "It has basically been like starting the year completely over," Ball says. "Our kids are learning the lay of the land of a new building and new staff. We learn new routines because we are in a new space. The tricky part is learning the new with also keeping in mind these kiddos have just been through major trauma and we must provide structure and routines with a lot of care, love and emotional support."
Having a classroom of students who already developed strong relationships has helped make this transition easier.
As students learn the new routines of the way an existing school operates—little things such as the way lunch is handed out or the timing of morning announcements may differ from Sumas—it can bring about plenty of life lessons.
Through it all, the teachers have connected with the students the real-life example that they can do hard things. From the remote learning during the pandemic, to the new protocols for the return to in-person learning to the flood, already these young students have experienced challenges. "And we've done it," Moss says. "With success. I also hope to teach them that kindness is everywhere and there are lots of good, caring people in the world."
The lessons from the flood are many. And they are still coming. Students have learned to be compassionate to classmates who lost their homes, learned to be resilient amidst difficulty and learned that showing up for others and listening is important.
These lessons can last a lifetime, Koranda says. "I hope that my students use this time as a time of adventure and that this challenge will help them remember to find and give grace during other trying times in their lives," she says.
"I want my students to see the good that can come from devastation," Ball says. "I think at Sumas our theme has been and will continue to be 'We can do hard things.'"