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Anchorage schools to close all week as district repairs earthquake damage

All Anchorage schools will be closed for the next week while the district fixes widespread damage from Friday’s 7.0 earthquake, school superintendent Deena Bishop announced Sunday.

“There’s a whole lot of mess to clean up,” said Bishop, wearing a hard hat Sunday on a tour of a thrashed mathematics classroom at Bartlett High School.

The first day back for all students — either in their home school or at an alternate site — will be Monday, Dec. 10, Bishop said.

All after-school activities are also canceled until school is back in session for students.

Each of the district’s schools sustained some kind of damage, she said, from scattered books and teaching materials to ceilings reduced to rubble.

“I’m committed to getting our schools up and running again,” said Bishop. “But we want our kids in safe and functional classrooms.”

Most schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District will be closed Monday and Tuesday, the district said, though officials are still assessing damages. The district said it would update families Monday afternoon.

The weeklong closure in Anchorage presented an immediate child care dilemma for tens of thousands of families in the district. Nearly 48,000 students attend schools in the district.

“Most families can absorb a couple days,” said Joanne Nutter, the director of development and marketing for Camp Fire Alaska, a program that provides before- and after-school care for 1,200 district students daily. “Extending further than that does cause a tremendous amount of anxiety for a lot of folks.”

Camp Fire Alaska said Sunday that it is working with the district to find space to offer emergency child care for its currently enrolled families, hopefully by Wednesday.

Officials said the municipality’s child care licensing program “will be reaching out to all licensed facilities on Monday morning to complete an assessment of need.”

Bishop said district staff and contractors are still going through ASD’s 92 school buildings and facilities — with a combined floor space of 7.8 million square feet and 4,000 separate teaching spaces — to determine the level of damage and needed repairs.

Design engineer Jason Kwiatkowski examines damage at King Tech High School, Dec. 1, 2018. The cinder block wall is not weight bearing but it and the ceiling were heavily damaged. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Some students to be allowed

District officials said they aren’t ready to detail damage on a school-by-school basis. More information on how specific schools fared, and when they will be ready for teachers to re-enter, will be published on the district website Monday, Bishop said.

Schools will be tagged as green, amber or red, denoting how safe the school is to enter. Tomorrow, district officials will also tell principals when schools are cleared. Principals can then allow school staff to come into the school during specific times, Bishop said.

Some limited numbers of students will be allowed back inside with escorts to get essential items left inside after the quake, like medicines. Bishop asked those who needed to recover important items from inside a school to notify their principal.

Teachers will be back in their classrooms Wednesday, if not earlier, to clean up, Bishop said.

On Sunday, Bishop led news media on a tour of Bartlett High School, one of the hardest hit in the district. Some parts of the school appear untouched.

But heading to a math floor statistics classroom meant walking by a heap of broken ceiling tiles in the hall. Inside the classroom, the entire ceiling is gone. Tiles fell during the earthquake and after. Air vents dangle. Everything is coated with a fine layer of gray dust from the smashed tiles.

So many ceiling tiles came down in Anchorage schools that “there aren’t enough ceiling tiles in Alaska” to replace them all right now, Bishop said.

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On Sunday, officials singled out some schools that sustained especially major damage: Eagle River Elementary School, which has “structural issues” that engineers are investigating. Bear Valley Elementary School on the Anchorage Hillside lost heat and electricity for a long time, and also has water damage, said Kelly Kass, a district regulatory manager.

Ceilings in some classrooms at Hanshew Middle School failed during the Nov. 30 earthquake. Photographed Dec. 1, 2018. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Hanshew Middle School on Lake Otis Parkway has extensive water damage and ceiling damage, along with a type of ceiling that’s making trouble spots harder to reach, Kass said. Water damage happened when pipes burst, or shifting in the ceiling triggered sprinklers, he said.

‘Could have school there tomorrow’

While every school has some kind of mess to clean up, some seemed to come through the quake nearly unscathed. At Willowcrest Elementary in Spenard, “it looks like you could have school there tomorrow,” with chairs and pencils in place, Kass said.

No schools are so damaged that they will be out of commission for the rest of the year, Bishop said. But some schools may have specific areas closed and have to shift classes into other areas, holding classes in a gym or cafeteria if necessary.

The decision to close schools for an entire week wasn’t made lightly, Bishop said.

Bishop said the district first planned to close schools until Wednesday, until it became clear teachers would need time to clean up and organize their own classrooms.

The plan then became to have students return Thursday. But with the district sharing busy specialized contractors for everything from sheet-metal work to dry-out specialists with every other business, government entity and person in the city, the district decided the extra days were needed, she said.

No decision has been made yet about whether the lost instructional time will be made up by adding days at the end of the school year, Bishop said.

By state statute, the school year must be 170 days long, Bishop said.

The ASD calendar has 172 student-attended school days built in. The closure would cause the district to fall below the 170 number, but the state has indicated it would work with the district on the extra days off, she said.

The district is looking at ways students will be able to make up some of those lost days of instruction later in the year. Most likely that will mean days currently scheduled as inservice days, when teachers are supposed to be at school but students aren’t, will become school days, Bishop said.

On Sunday, the Mat-Su Borough School District said its schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday, except for Glacier View, Trapper Creek Elementary, Talkeetna Elementary, Su Valley High School, Willow Elementary and Beryozova. The district said it would update information on closures at 2 p.m. Monday via Facebook Live and email.

The University of Alaska’s Anchorage and Chugiak-Eagle River campuses are closed Monday and Tuesday, reopening Wednesday. Alaska Pacific University said on its website that its campus didn’t sustain major structural damage and will reopen Monday, weather permitting.

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