Thousands of Pr. George’s students to stay home for another day

Thirty-two schools in Prince George’s County will remain closed Thursday as structural engineers continue to assess and repair damage from Tuesday’s 5.8 earthquake.

On the third day of classes, more than 23,000 of the system’s 127,000 students will stay home. Students in the other 166 schools in Maryland’s second-largest school system should report to school Thursday on time.

Officials said they are taking assessments day-by-day. It’s likely more schools will open by the end of the week, but just how many is still in question.

The damage includes cracked walls, rattled tiles and fallen bricks. Building supervisors and structural engineers were out early Wednesday morning, searching for damage and conducting tests for chemicals released inside the buildings, including asbestos.

The tests concluded that all the county’s schools were environmentally safe, said Briant Coleman, a school system spokesman. But there is still clean-up and repairs to be done at the 32 schools, resulting in their closure.

“The safety of our students, teachers and staff is our number one priority,” said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. “We are working as quickly as possible to get the necessary building inspections completed so that school can resume for all students.”

Early assessment by building supervisors immediately after the quake led to reports that 37 schools were damaged. Students reported seeing blinking lights and crumbling ceilings before they were evacuated into football fields, court yards and other open areas.

When the earthquake hit at 1:51 p.m. Tuesday, many elementary schools had already been dismissed. For others, only minutes were left in the school day, and students were dismissed at the usual time.

After school on Tuesday, many students went straight to Twitter. In fact, by Wednesday morning, “No school tomorrow” was a trending topic on Twitter. There were no serious injuries reported at any school, although the incident left some students startled.

“I lived in California, so I was used to this, but some students were very scared,” said William Johnson, a junior at Friendly High School in Fort Washington who was in algebra class when the quake occurred. “When they got out, some said they were happy to be alive. Others prayed.”

After dismissal, the system began a second wave of assessments that continued into Wednesday afternoon, narrowing the number of damaged schools to 32.

Hite met with officials for at least an hour Wednesday afternoon to determine whether they should close the entire system. They announced the 32 closures about 6:30 p.m.

The schools affected run the range in terms of size and age. Some schools, such as Surrattsville High School, have stood for more than forty years. Others, such as Ernest E. Just Middle School, have been open for less than a decade.

Some parents said the earthquake cemented their worries about the nature of some buildings. Nicole Nelson, president of the parents association at John Hanson Montessori School in Oxon Hill, noted cracks in the ceiling and falling tiles in their 55-year-old building. Since 2006, the parent group at Hanson has been lobbying for the school system to renovate Hanson, citing concerns about rat infestations and pipes made with asbestos.

“Parents at John Hanson are very concerned,” Nelson said. “We all ready know that the facility is very [antiquated], and the earthquake has only exacerbated any problem that building already had.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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