SWANSEA, Ill. (KMOX) – Wednesday was pizza day at Wolf Branch Middle School, 410 Huntwood Road in Swansea.
Lots and lots of pizza to be exact, as the local Papa John’s restaurant dropped off dozens of boxes to feed the student body of 400-plus.
In short, it was not your normal day at the school, which is slowly starting to sink into the ground due to mine subsidence.
“Approximately three and a half weeks ago, we started noticing cracks in the floor,” explains Wolf Branch District 113 superintendent Scott Harres. “So we started monitoring it closely and immediately called in the architects and the engineers who built the school. They put monitoring equipment throughout the building.”
It was determined that mine subsidence was the culprit, and erring on the side of caution, the superintendent says they began coming up with a list of contigency plans to keep kids and school out of harm’s way.
“Every meeting that I’ve had with the engineers and architects ends with me asking the question, ‘Are we safe?'” Harres says.
Eventually, what he describes as the most drastic option was chosen, and that was to box up the entire school and move students two blocks down the street to Wolf Branch Elementary which, though designed initially as a K-8 teaching facility, will be quite snug.
“We’re going to be packed in there like sardines,” Harres admitted. “But the cool thing about it is I’ve spoken with more than half of the staff, and every single comment I’ve received has been along the lines of, ‘Let’s get it done, we’re gonna make this work.'”
Classes at both schools are cancelled Thursday and Friday as the big move takes place.
Harres says it’s good to realize that the community has their backs.
“Most of the neighboring school districts have called asking, ‘What do you need? Do you need facilities, do you need boxes, do you need trucks or trailers?'” he says. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”
No long-term solutions have been hashed out yet, but the 15-year-old school is not in danger of being condemned and torn down.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, through a federal grant, will continue to study and assess where repairs for mine subsidence need to be made, and a federal grant will allow for a payout to cover any “imminent danger” situation.
The district itself would then be responsible for funding any other repairs that need to be made, but there’s no timetable for making those repairs.
Harres says the positive reaction to the crisis by students, staff and faculty has been crucial to ensuring a smooth transition.
“That’s the attitude that’s going to have to continue, because it’s going to take tons of flexibility, tons of cooperation to make this work,” he says.