27 Mat-Su Schools re-open Thursday; others to follow next week

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WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) — Students at John Shaw Elementary School in Wasilla could not have predicted the magnitude 4.8 aftershock Thursday that instinctively sent some of them diving for cover under their desks.

But they were ready for it.

They'd learned earthquake safety before. On Friday, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the region, they'd put their rehearsals to the test, leaving no doubt that if shakes and jolts happened again, they'd know what to do.

Dec. 6 marked the return to school for most of the district's 19,000 students. Thirteen additional schools resume next week — all but one in their main school building. Badly damaged in the initial earthquake, Houston Middle School will remain closed for the 2018-2019 school year.

Students bounced and bounded into Shaw Elementary toting water bottles and carrying smiles as abundant as their earthquake survival tales. Schools throughout the district are on boil water notice until tests confirm water, sewer, and wells are safe.

The students mobbed Principal David Russell, who stood in the lobby greeting each one by name and chatting about pressing matters.

Standing in the doorway to the library, one student quietly asked "Are there any cracks?"

"Are there any cracks? Guess what. If there were, Mr. Russell (Russell Loyd, the school's custodian) was here all weekend and he fixed them already," Principal Russell said.

Over and over, through a constant smile, Russell said "Good Morning!" and "Have a good day." He shook hands and high-fived dozens of small hands.

Russell's is one of several schools that received relatively little damage. When the quake hit, alarms went off and lights flashed as dust fell from the ceiling, but structurally it held up.

"It felt like eternity as it was shaking," Russell said in an interview before students arrived. "It was a wild ride."

Russell explained to incoming students, who had various degrees of damage at their individual homes, that some cracks that look serious, might only be a surface problem.

"A lot of cracks happened in a lot of houses, especially sheet rock, and that is something we can fix easily," he told another student.

"Kids are going to see cracks in different places. They've probably seen cracks in their own homes and for them to understand that may be superficial is important. It might set them at ease," he said.

In a fourth grade classroom, students clustered together for a chat. Led by their teacher, they spoke about Friday's earthquake. At some point the conversation turned to pets.

Raised hands stretched to the ceiling -- students were eager to get called on to share their story.

"Once the earthquake was over we went to go check on the animals. My brother's parakeet was traumatized," said one boy.

"Our dogs didn't know what was going on. But my hedgehog, --his little bed fell over," said a girl sitting next to him.

A day earlier. staff returned to the school to prep classrooms and talk about how to manage students' need to talk while maintaining a regular school schedule.

"I think it is important that routine continues, and we're still keeping an eye out for those kids that might still be a little bit traumatized," Russell said.

On the playground, with children sliding down the sledding hill, two fifth graders spoke about the earthquake and the return to school.

"I'm happy to be safe and just glad to be back at school," said Makenna Hanson.

"They're pretty scary. I think we're lucky that we didn't have more damage," said Kade Russell.

Kade is the principal's son, and Hanson's mother teaches at the school. Both students were at the school when the earthquake occurred.

Russell recalls the lights going out, the ceiling falling, and rushing to get him and his younger brothers under a table.

Hanson was alone in a classroom.

"I heard something, I looked up. All of the walls were waves," said Hanson, who darted under a desk, alone, and waited.