As Anchorage students return to school, buildings are called safe but not always ‘pretty’

Tens of thousands of Anchorage School District students will return to classes Monday. It’s their first day back to school since the 7.0 earthquake violently shook the region just over a week ago.

Crews have worked around the clock to ready the dozens of schools in the state’s largest school district, said Anchorage Schools Superintendent Deena Bishop. They had to replace ceiling tiles, repair sinkholes, tear out carpets, fix plumbing leaks, clean up flooding and more. Teachers also had to piece their rooms back together after the quake sent shelves, drawers and books crashing to the floor. At two schools in hard-hit Eagle River, they had to pick up and move locations completely over the past few days.

“It’s amazing what’s been done in a week,” Bishop said.

Work continued through the weekend to prepare for the return of more than 45,000 students, she said. Nearly all Anchorage schools will reopen to students on Monday, but that doesn’t mean the buildings will look perfect.

“It’s not going to be as pretty, but it’s going to be a good place to learn,” Bishop said.

Two of the district’s schools in Eagle River will not reopen this school year because of serious earthquake damage: Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School. Their students and staff will move to other schools for the rest of the year. King Tech High School in Anchorage will resume classes on Wednesday. In the meantime, full-time King Tech students will complete classwork online.

At the district’s more than 90 other schools, crews have focused on ensuring the buildings are safe and up to code, said Shannon Rasic, business development manager in maintenance and operations at the district. The district hired contractors for some of the work.


By Friday, the school district had not yet totaled the cost of the repair work completed or the cost of the work that still needed to be done, said Jim Anderson, district chief financial officer.

“It’s certainly in the millions,” he said.

He expected the school district’s property insurance policy to cover some of the costs. The policy has a $100,000 deductible, according to a document for Monday evening’s Anchorage School Board meeting. The district is also working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Anderson said.

[Complete coverage of the 7.0 Alaska earthquake and aftermath]

Earthquake damage touched every one of the district’s schools to some degree, Rasic said.

“Some were just ceiling tiles or needed a good cleaning by custodial from all the dust that fell," she said. "Others had gas leaks, glycol leaks, all sorts of stuff.”

Rasic was one of the people working in the school district’s emergency operations center Friday. The makeshift, shared office space popped up on the second floor of the district administration building soon after the quake.

It serves as a hub for coordinating repair and clean-up work. Whiteboards traced the progress of work at each school. A green star indicated a building was ready for students. At the front of the room, a spreadsheet that detailed repairs was projected on the wall.

“It’s just been amazing to watch the contractors and our maintenance personnel just kind of jump to action and volunteer to help and put in long hours,” Rasic said.

Schools on Monday will have heat, electricity and running water, she said. Their sprinkler systems will work. All facility systems will have been checked, including gas and air quality, Bishop said. Structural engineers will also have checked all of the buildings, she said.

The schools are safe, but won’t all look exactly like they did before the earthquake, Bishop said.

“It’s going to be a year worth of repairs,” Rasic said.

It’s possible some students will still see broken furniture, cracks in walls or missing ceiling tiles on Monday, Bishop said. The district had to replace hundreds — if not thousands — of ceiling tiles.

“We bought the state out of ceiling tiles,” Rasic said.

Some schools will also have stained carpets or mismatched paint colors or off-limit areas such as gyms.

“The way that their building looks right now is not the way it’s going to stay,” said Keri Shivers, project manager for major maintenance at the district.

More repairs and fixes will take place throughout the school year, including during the upcoming holiday break. For instance, the district has to replace roughly 20,000 square feet of carpet after the quake triggered sprinklers in school buildings, Rasic said. The replacement will happen over time.


The earthquake also destroyed curriculum, supplies and equipment, according to the district.

Several school principals said in recent interviews that they and their staff had set aside time on Monday to talk with their students about the earthquake — how they felt when it happened and how they feel now. The earthquake hit at 8:29 a.m. on a Friday. Classes were underway in Anchorage high schools and middle schools. Anchorage elementary schools start at 9 a.m., but some before-school programs were taking place when the quake struck.

Principals said they wanted students to feel safe and secure at school on Monday. They had a variety of plans.

At Mountain View Elementary School, staff planned to greet students with hot chocolate and welcome-back banners, said principal Chris Woodward. Each classroom would also have a morning meeting where students could ask questions about the earthquake or talk about what they experienced.

“I told teachers, ‘That could take 20 minutes, it could take all day,’” Woodward said.

Crisis-response dogs are visiting Bear Valley Elementary School on Monday, said principal Carissa Coté. At East High School, students will start the day in their second period class -- the one they evacuated from on Nov. 30. They’ll have time to debrief about the earthquake, said principal Sam Spinella.

At Central Middle School of Science, teachers will also reserve time in the morning to talk to students about the quake and how they’re feeling, said principal Joel Roylance. Before that, staff will line the hallways to welcome students back to school.

“I’ll shake as many hands as I can,” he said.


Anchorage students will have to make up for three of the days they had off during the weeklong school closure, Bishop said. By state statute, the school year must be 170 days long. The Anchorage School District calendar has 172 student-attended school days built in.

“So we have two days built in for bad weather,” Bishop said. “The other three days, however, we’re looking to have students in during in-service days and other days that they have off. The goal is to not extend the school year for students.”

School officials had not decided by Friday which three days would turn into student-attended school days, Bishop said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.