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In a new series, NBN News is highlighting the efforts to rebuild the flood-ravaged Northern Rivers community. Here, Olivia Grace-Curran and Josephine Shannon visit schools in the area facing the dual problem of displaced students and buildings damaged beyond repair.

Four months on from the day the New South Wales Northern Rivers was swallowed by floodwaters and students across the region are still struggling to come to terms with their new reality.

One in six pupils at Mullumbimby High School lost everything in the February and March catastrophes and every building at their school went under by a metre of water.

But the disaster is not over.

NSW Northern Rivers floods
The floodwaters reached unprecedented heights and devastated towns in the Northern Rivers. (9News)

School captain Nalani Farrell’s family has been forced to knock down their home at South Golden Beach, north of Byron Bay, after mould took over.

“A lot of people just expect that everything is back to normal, but a lot of us are still experiencing repercussions from the floods,” Farrell told 9News.

She said the disruptions to learning have been ongoing and as Term 2 comes to an end, many of her classmates are anxious about the looming HSC.

“Term 1, the first few weeks was COVID-19 so we were in lockdown. We came back for a week,” she said.

“Then the floods happened and we just missed weeks and weeks… I think a lot of us just don’t feel prepared because we’ve been trying to take (it) day-by-day.”

Student from Mullumbimby High School speaks about flood devastation.
A student from Mullumbimby High School speaks about flood devastation. (9News)

Several areas of Mullumbimby High School were damaged by flood waters, including the hall, library, staff spaces and playground.

“All the mould just destroyed all of the books in the library, our hall has just been destroyed, all the floors ruined – we haven’t had a whole school assembly for months now,” Farrell said.

The challenges also taking a toll on Year 12 student Matilda Thornton.

“I lost my car, one of our houses got flooded .. It’s just been quite devastating all around for all of our community,” Thornton said.

Mullumbimby High School returned to their campus in April with six temporary buildings installed to cater for the displacement.

Tenders have opened for a contractor to rebuild flood-impacted buildings, with work expected to be complete by the end of Term 1, 2023.

High student demand for emotional support in schools

School captain Max Biermann said the demand for emotional support has been high.

“We’ve had a lot more students seeking to see the school counsellor and we’ve needed a lot more support from our local community just due to the stress of it all,” he said.

At the peak of the flood events 331 schools had temporarily ceased operations.

Online learning was offered for students, but for many across the region including Mullumbimby High’s John Harry, it wasn’t an option.

“I had no internet – I live up in the valley, no internet, no power for weeks – completely cut off from society, our road had fallen down and I was unable to leave (my home),” Harry said.

“We had shipments and helicopters flying in giving us food and stuff – that was a once in a lifetime experience.”

Mullumbimby High School
Mullumbimby High School saw flood damage to the hall, library and classrooms. (9News)

Harry said school work went out the window when the priority became assisting his much-loved community.

“Lots of volunteer work that we were all doing, helping our community out,” he told 9News.

As villages began to rebuild, it was difficult to find focus again in the classroom.

“Teachers have been great helping us to get back on track.. we were crumpled down, the motivation had gone.”

First school in the region to be deemed ‘unsalvagable’

Richmond River High School in Lismore is not so lucky.

Last week, NSW Education advised the school community to prepare for the secondary school to be rebuilt in an entirely new location, which is yet to be determined.

Deputy Secretary School Performance North Leanne Nixon said the Department of Education’s site visits and assessments concluded twelve buildings were “beyond repair”.

“The only room that was salvageable was in fact the historical part of the school – which everyone in Lismore recognises,” Nixon said.

“There was very, very little that could have been saved from those buildings. That meant everything in them … people’s resources, student work, all the equipment – none of that was salvageable.

“Teachers have had resources for thirty years or more of their career that are irreplaceable – and for students that are working on their senior work, or their HSC, some of that is irreplaceable.”

Richmond River High is the first in the region to be deemed “unsalvageable” as a result of the flooding disaster.

NSW Northern Rivers school after flood devastation.
Richmond River High School has been deemed unsalvageable. (9News)

“Out of these floods in 2022 it is the only school that we will be looking at an alternative site, for the others we think there is raising to do,” Nixon said.

“Clearly we’re not going to put (the school) back on that site – that wouldn’t be wise given its propensity to flood regularly.

“We need to work on how we will do this rebuild, where it will be and we’ll consult with the community all through this.”

Temporary and ‘pop-up’ schools peppered across the flood-ravaged region

An “emotional” information session was held following news about Richmond River High School’s fate.

“The reaction was as you would expect – there were people that were very sad about this and there were others that thought, given the history of flooding, that this was a sensible move,” she said.

Richmond River High School has been operating out of Lismore High Campus and will continue to for a number of years.

“We’ve built a pop-up school with all the bells and whistles – It has science labs, has manual arts rooms, cooking rooms,” Nixon said.

Students in NSW Northern Rivers school after flood devastation.
Schools have experienced immense flood damage which will take years to fix. (9News)

At Condong Public School, just outside of Murwillumbah, students have relocated to Murwillumbah South Infants School.

The small primary school in the Tweed Shire saw over a metre of floodwater fill their classrooms earlier this year, damaging all buildings, including classrooms, administration buildings, the library and toilets.

Principal Brendan Quinn says it’s not the first time Condong Public School has been forced to operate inside another school.

“In 2017, when we were displaced from the floods then, we were up here {Murwillumbah South Infants School} for three terms after those floods as well,” Quinn said.

Discussions are underway to determine how the rebuild can be made flood-proof, with raised buildings a likely feature.

Students will have to wait until mid-2024 to return to their own campus.

Finally getting their identity back

The biggest challenge for Broadwater Public School, near Ballina, was losing its “identity”, Principal Stephen Curtin said.

All of his 52 students now get dropped off to class fifteen kilometres south at Evans River Community School, Evans Head.

“(Their) lives have been completely turned upside down. They’ve found it very, very hard,” Curtin said.

When the tight-knit school was first placed at Evan’s River, the children were plunged in with 550 other students.

“That was a big change for our kids to get use to that,” he said.

“It’s just missing that sense of a small school where all kids nurture each other, play with each other, look after each other – that still happens in a sense, but not quite the same as it was at Broady,” he said.

Temporary demountables have now been installed at Evans River Community School, offering separate learning spaces for the small group.

Principal Curtin said it’s starting to feel like Broadwater again.

“We’re getting better … We are starting to get a little bit of our Broadwater identity back … small school feel about it.”

“It’s just a different feel to the place – some have said they don’t want to be here, they want to go back to Broady which is obviously not going to happen for a while.”

Students in NSW Northern Rivers school after flood devastation.
Students in NSW Northern Rivers school after flood devastation. (9News)

He said it will be between 18 and 24 months before the school community is back learning at the rebuilt Broadwater campus.

“There was one building that (floodwater) didn’t reach the top floor of, but every other building had within 30 centimetres of the ceiling, flooded through.”

Sports equipment from Newcastle and bikes from Noosa

Broadwater Public School, like many across the Northern Rivers, has received donations from far and wide, including sports equipment from Newcastle and bikes from Noosa.

“We’ve been communicating with a small school in the Hunter Valley who’ve donated books, with personal letters inside the books to every child in the school, and we’ve responded to those letters,” Curtain said.

“We’ve had donations from other schools of their whole Scholastic book order coming to us rather than going to that school.”

At the moment, Broadwater Public School needs bookshelves.

“We have no real library furniture at the moment, we’ve got lots and lots of donated books sitting just on tables.”

Top priority remains the wellbeing of students

Many Year Five and Six students across the Northern Rivers will never return to the primary school they grew up in.

Curtin believes these students are suffering more than others.

“For some the light’s not there because they’re not going back – Year 5 and 6 won’t go back to Broady because they’ll be moved onto high school,” Curtin said.

“For the rest of us and staff, I think it’s something we aspire to – to get back there .. and the community.”

He said the school’s top priority is the wellbeing of students.

“We saw the kids at their lowest. It’s hard to put yourself in a position you haven’t been in,” Curtain explained.

“It’s easy to sit in a different place and say how terrible it is that those guys have lost their homes, but unless you’re actually in that position you don’t know how bad it is.

“Unless you’ve lived the situation – it’s hard to imagine.”

With thousands of people still displaced by the floodwaters, children are living in a range of circumstances.

NSW Northern Rivers floods
The floods caused damage to homes, schools and businesses across the region. (9News)

“We’ve got parents and we’ve got kids who are still suffering, because they’re not back in their home,” Curtin said.

“They’re in a caravan on their block or something like that. It’s ongoing, it’s not like it’s all done and dusted and it’s all over, it’s still ongoing for a lot of our kids and our families.”

“Schools are the normal in kids lives and by being back at school with their mates, it is so important for their wellbeing.”

Devastating deluge impacts two states

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