Students at Morrison Elementary School in Fort Smith soon may begin having classes at Grand Avenue Baptist Church. Morrison Elementary was heavily damaged when an F-1 tornado hit Fort Smith May 3.
The school lost its roof and had tornado damage to multiple heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units (HVAC) and gas lines during the storm, said Bill Hollenbeck, director of security and facilities for the Fort Smith Public Schools Police Department.
“I know all of you are aware of the tornado damage that we recently took at Morrison, but you may not know the significance of that,” said Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent. “We are still working on all the details to transition from virtual (school) at Morrison to on-site learning at a different site than this school. This school … will not be suitable for students to go back this school year.”
Morrison was on the edge of the tornado’s path, Hollenbeck said. Throughout the neighborhood, there was significant damage. The tornado peeled the roof off the building, with some landing on the school’s courtyard and more of it landing in the Arkansas River bottoms, Hollenbeck said. One of the HVAC units was damaged when something was “rammed” into it, and several of HVAC units were picked up, shifted and “slammed back down,” causing structural damage to the units and the roof, he added.
There also was a great deal of water damage in several of the classrooms. There were stressed and separated gas lines on the roof and throughout the building, and the district does not yet know what type of damage was caused to all the lines in the school, he said. There also was some damage to part of the school’s foundation.
Hollenbeck said that it would take a minimum of 12 weeks just to get the HVAC unit replacement and equipment delivered. If Superintendent Dr. Terry Morwaski declares an emergency for the school, repair work can begin sooner, he added. That declaration would also allow potential state funding to help with the repair cost, but the district’s insurance also will provide funding, Hollenbeck said.
“This will go far into the summer. I want to assure you that our expectations are that we are going to do everything that we can to get the school open before school starts next year, but we just have to keep in mind that it’s all dependent on the amount of lead time with the equipment,” he said.
Mahan said the school’s administration has reached out to area churches to find adequate space for all the students to be able to meet in one location. Both First Baptist Church and Grand Avenue Baptist Church offered their facilities. The space at Grand Avenue is the best because it offers enough classroom space, cafeteria space, a playground with playground equipment and appropriate security, Mahan said. First Baptist has said they still want to help with supplies or other needs.
The district has a cafeteria service contract with Grand Avenue. The school board approved a $12,000 lease contract June 22 with Grand Avenue Baptist Church for use of its kitchen facilities during construction at Northside and Southside high schools cafeterias during the 2020-21 school year because kitchens were not available at those schools during construction on the cafeterias.
The district will have wireless hotspots for teachers and students in order to provide appropriate Wi-Fi internet access while classes meet at the church, Mahan said.
“To say it will be as smooth as existing Wi-Fi would not be accurate. I think it will be a little bit clunkier. Probably won’t be conducive to a lot of video footage, but it will be conducive to accessing Google classroom and online instruction,” Mahan said.
The school is working out a transportation schedule to bus students from Morrison to the church in the mornings and back in the afternoons to help parents as much as possible, Mahan said. Brittany Watson, principal at Morrison, said they have more than 50% buy-in from parents concerning the proposed location move. She said that after they are able to talk to all parents, she believes buy-in will be 90% to 100%.