All but six of the Prince George’s County schools that were shut after this week’s earthquake are expected to reopen Friday, returning some normalcy to a chaotic first week of school in which more than 20,000 children missed two days of instruction.
On Thursday, structural engineers and school officials cleared 26 schools that had been closed for a second day. “We are exercising an abundance of caution,” said Prince George’s Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.
In the District, where the school year also began Monday, only the School Without Walls in Northwest remained closed Thursday. Officials hope to reopen it Monday.
Jeff Teagarden walked to Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Mitchellville on Thursday morning with a clipboard in hand and one big question on his mind: Is this school safe?
As a structural engineer, Teagarden had been contracted to assess some county schools. He and other engineers examined long cracks in walls and investigated roof fixtures. They measured the risk of bricks falling on someone’s head or of a roof caving in on the student body.
The 32 schools in Prince George’s that were closed Thursday largely needed repairs in common areas such as gyms, cafeterias and lobbies. No injuries were reported in the county schools in Tuesday’s 5.8 quake, but damage was found in all parts of the 198-school system, in buildings old and new.
Just Middle School opened in 2002, and Hite regards the tan-brick building, on a campus of manicured lawns, as one of the county's most beautiful schools. The lobby has a modern, loft-like look, with 35-foot high ceilings and exposed beams.
When the earthquake struck, Principal Carlton Carter went outside and examined the building. He wasn’t pleased. A single crack, about the width of a hair, had cut through the bricks on the exterior, near the front entrance. On another side, a crack stretched the length of the building.
“The building shifted from left to right,’’ Carter said. “So I called the central office right away.”
On Thursday, he joined the tour with Teagarden, Hite and members of the news media. Hite pointed to the beams soaring above. Parts of bricks had fallen from the walls, creating a doughnut hole around the metal beams. Ceiling tiles also came down, but the grid holding up the tiles hadn’t twisted.
Teagarden, Hite and Carter then walked to the gym, where another thin crack had etched itself in the bricks.
“I’d say that crack is about 15 feet long,’’ Teagarden said.
He imagined what the infrastructure looked like beneath the ceiling and which parts of the wall were carrying the weight of the roof. He deduced that the weight of the building rested on the walls adjacent to the one that was damaged, making the impact in the gym more cosmetic than structural.
Just Middle School wasn’t the only county school that got off relatively easily. Teagarden said damage was deemed cosmetic in about 80 percent of the system’s compromised buildings.
Still, Teagarden recommended Thursday that Just Middle School’s gym be closed for repairs, even though other parts of the school will reopen Friday.
The schools that will remain shut Friday because they are awaiting final inspection are Beltsville Academy, Bradbury Heights Elementary, Port Towns Elementary, Potomac High, Suitland Elementary and Forestville Military Academy.
If any of those schools can’t open in coming weeks, the system has plans to use former schools and other community facilities, Hite said.
“This is something we’ve never had before,’’ he said. “And, I think, our teachers and our supervisors handled it very well.”
Elsewhere in Prince George’s, about 230 residents of a Temple Hills apartment building that was condemned after the earthquake returned to their homes Wednesday night after building was determined to be structurally sound, county officials said.
Samuel Wynkoop Jr., the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources, said Thursday that an apartment building on Good Hope Road remains closed, pending repair of structural damage and restoration of electricity. About 300 people have been displaced there.
Lavette Sims, an outreach manager for the county Department of Social Services, said about 50 people used a shelter that the county set up at Hillcrest Heights Community Center between Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon.
Sims said many displaced residents have moved in with relatives and friends. But she added, “The shelter will be here as long as the residents need it.”
Staff writers Bill Turque and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.