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Water-hit schools in quandary

District looks at shifting students amid weather cleanup by Cynthia Howell | February 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK — Water damage at schools caused by last week’s frigid temperatures and record-breaking snowfall has Little Rock School District leaders looking for alternatives for pupils and staff at Pulaski Heights Elementary and Middle schools, Superintendent Mike Poore said Tuesday.

Surplus space at Hall STEAM Magnet High was being considered as an alternative site for as many as 500 in-school middle and elementary pupils on Tuesday afternoon but no decisions have been made. Many Pulaski Heights pupils are learning virtually from their homes this year because of the covid-19 pandemic.

The two campuses, one built in 1921 and the other in 1927, are among five schools that the capital city district has closed to on-site instruction for this week because of interior flooding resulting from frozen and then broken pipes.

The Little Rock district is one of many districts facing repairs from the winter storm that was characterized by heavy snowfall and temperatures that fell below zero in some places.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said Tuesday that there are reports of extensive damage to roofs, water systems and heating/ air conditioning systems in schools across the state. As a result, students and staff at some of those schools have had to shift to virtual instruction until repairs are made.

“We are working closely through our Division of Academic Facilities and Transportation with those districts to understand the extent of the damage, to partner with them and help them in any way that we can,” Key said during Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s weekly news conference.

“It is our goal to get those facilities up and running as soon as possible so those students can return to their classrooms,” he said.

Chenal Elementary School in the Pulaski County Special School District will be closed to on-site instruction for the third day today because of flooding in the activity building that houses the cafeteria, spokeswoman Jessica Duff said.

Little Rock’s Jefferson and Watson elementaries and Cloverdale Middle School are closed for on-site instruction this week but are expected to be open to students on Monday, Poore said. Parkview Magnet High School’s gym floor also was flooded last week but appears to have been saved and can be used for a game this week.

“We’re making tremendous progress on three of the five [closed] sites,” Poore said. “We believe that if everything continues to go well that by next week we will be back to in-person learning at Jefferson, Watson and Cloverdale,” he said. “They had such significant water pipe damage and it happened in multiple spots on the campuses, that, one, we are trying to repair the leaks and, secondly, we have to get the areas dried out appropriately. We have a lot of different crews in the buildings working on those facilities.”

A more challenging problem and one that will carry on into next week and even the week after, he said, are the Pulaski Heights campuses where there continues to be no running water, no electricity and lingering water damage.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” he said about the situation at the adjoining campuses where, at one point, the water was waist-deep in a basement area where water pipes and electrical lines converged.

“It’s pretty safe to say right now — we’re pretty confident — that there is no way they can return to in-person learning next week,” he also said, adding that a search is on for alternative school sites for the families who send their children to the Pulaski Heights campuses for in-person learning.

Hall High, which has fewer than 400 10th-through-12th graders this year in a building that can house at least twice that, is a possibility because of its proximity to Pulaski Heights in the midtown part of the city.

“We have yet to work through all the details,” Poore said. Moving elementary and middle school pupils to a high school campus presents its own issues — such as finding appropriately sized desks.

The broken pipes and leaks around the district started to come to light Thursday with the news about the Parkview gym. The reports continued through the weekend and problems were still being uncovered as late as Tuesday — including repeated issues at Hall.

Poore acknowledged that parents have had to repeatedly shift between virtual and on-site instruction in the past year because of the covid-19 pandemic, then the winter storm and now the disabled heating, electrical and water systems.

He praised district crews, repair companies and parents for their work and resilience.

The superintendent said he can’t yet put a price tag on the cost of the repairs. Decisions are still being made about the repairing versus replacing systems such as the boilers at the Pulaski Heights campuses. In some cases, the district is having difficulty locating replacement parts for what are very old utility systems.

The district has a $100,000 deductible in insurance, he said.

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