Eagle River Elementary School will be closed for the rest of the school year because of extensive damage from last week’s 7.0 earthquake, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop announced Tuesday.
The 400 children who attend the school will be re-assigned to two other elementary schools, Birchwood ABC Elementary in Chugiak or Homestead Elementary in Eagle River, for the remainder of the year, Bishop said.
Students re-assigned to Birchwood or Homestead will remain with the same classmates and teachers, she said. The district said more information about where individual classes will be reassigned will be coming soon.
The elementary school, located near the downtown business district of the suburb north of Anchorage, is the first school in the district to face a long-term shutdown due to damage from the quake.
Officials say they are still cleaning up most of the district’s 92 schools but expect to have all students back either at their own site or another site on Dec. 10. As of Tuesday night, 40 schools had been cleared for staff to re-enter. Almost all are expected to be ready for students by next week.
The re-opening of Gruening Middle School, also in Eagle River, is in doubt, according to the district. Bishop said engineers are still evaluating, but it too may have structural damage that would further delay students returning.
In the hard-hit Matanuska-Susitna Borough, officials announced Monday that Houston Middle School will not reopen this school year.
On Tuesday, district officials led U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, on a hard-hats-required tour of Eagle River Elementary, pointing out places where concrete brick walls cracked, making the gym, multipurpose room and other parts of the building too structurally unsound for school to resume. Bishop said the district hasn’t determined whether it will pursue renovation or a complete rebuild of the building.
But completely shutting down Eagle River Elementary School and allowing students to be reabsorbed into other schools permanently isn’t on the table, Bishop said.
The Eagle River and Chugiak area is a place where enrollment is growing, so a school is needed, she said.
The elementary school, on Old Eagle River Road near the downtown business district, enrolls about 400 students in a neighborhood program and a school-within-a-school optional program that families apply to join. There is also an on-site preschool.
The squat beige and green concrete block building, constructed in 1961 and last renovated in 1984, shuddered violently during the earthquake, said Principal Lisa Prince.
Prince attended the school herself in the late 1970s and went on to become a middle and high school administrator in Anchorage. She loved her childhood years at Eagle River Elementary so much that she applied to be principal of her old school when the job became open.
Just like when she was a student, the school is still a close-knit place where many kids walk to school, and teachers want to stay until they retire, she said. The school even smells exactly the same as it did when she was a kid.
“I have such an attachment to it,” she said, standing outside the cracked walls of the building Tuesday.
In the moments after the earthquake, when everyone was out of the building, teachers could smell gas, so they led students across the road and kept them warm in school buses until parents could pick them up.
Over the next few hours, Prince watched as a menacing crack on the school’s exterior snaked down the wall, foot by foot.
Prince had gotten close to the building to help a teacher move her parked car when a disturbing sound came out of the school.
“It sounded like a glacier calving,” she said. “It was terrifying. We ran.”
She knew the building’s damage was serious.
On Tuesday’s tour, Bishop and ASD chief operating officer for administration Thomas Roth showed news crews, school board member Elisa Snelling and Sen. Sullivan and his staffers the wreckage.
Standing in the multipurpose room, Sullivan reflected on his two days of touring earthquake damage in the Anchorage area.
His biggest takeaway: just how badly schools in particular had fared without any major injuries reported. ““The schools are hammered, hammered. Look in the gym here. There’s probably 50 ceiling tiles that fell. And there’s kids in there,” he said.
“I’m kind of stunned at how much damage has occurred in our schools — and yet, thank God, no one was hurt.”
On Tuesday’s tour, Prince ducked into classrooms to take photos for teachers of their disheveled classrooms.
She jumped into one classroom to check on two frogs — class pets — that she’d been fretting about since the quake. They were alive. It turned out the school district maintenance crews who’ve been working around the clock since Friday had been feeding them.
In the multipurpose room, Prince snatched a $10,000 bassoon left behind by the school music teacher, a source of considerable worry for the teacher.
Children enrolled in a before-school program had been in the room when the earthquake struck. Some had left behind half-consumed breakfast packages of Froot Loops and juice boxes.
Prince said her teachers would likely be let in with hard-hats and escorts to get some of their stuff this week. She was planning to meet with her staff Wednesday to talk about next steps.
For students, staff and families, a lot of jarring changes were coming, she said.
From her office, she made sure to grab the framed photo she keeps of Mr. Lester, the man who was principal when Prince herself was a young student at Eagle River Elementary.