By WILLIAM MARLOW | Special to the Reporter
NORTH SHELBY – Oak Mountain Middle School will continue with online learning indefinitely after an assessment of last month’s tornado destruction revealed that the school was more severely damaged than officials first believed.
This news comes from the school’s principal, Larry Haynes, who sent a letter to the school’s more than 1,100 students on April 2.
The school suffered significant damage from an EF3 tornado that swept through Shelby County on March 25. Haynes was one of the first people to survey the school’s damage in the days following the storm.
During the initial storm, the tornado shattered many of the building’s front and eastside windows in addition to damaging several of the school’s buses.
According to Haynes, the tornado’s wind knocked several HVAC units off their pedestals and also blew debris and gravel inside the building.
Several trees and power lines were also knocked down in the area surrounding the school.
“The building suffered extensive damage, with those being the primary things,” Haynes said. “When you have that kind of wind from an EF3 storm, the first thing that needs to be done is to look at what needs to be repaired in a reasonable turnaround time. The number one thing, however, is to look at the entire building to make sure that it is secure.”
In the aftermath of the storm, Haynes said he has been working with a team of architects, engineers and electricians to do a complete inspection of the building.
Haynes has also been in communication with Alabama Power, Shelby County officials and the Alabama State Department of Education. The most recent assessment that was reported April 2 revealed additional damage to the school’s exterior and interior walls throughout the building and on the roof.
“What they have learned so far is that the damage is more extensive than originally thought, particularly toward the east side of the building and the front of the school,” Haynes said. “They have assessed all the roof area and low-bearing walls and have taken up ceiling tiles to look along the walls where they join the roof to make sure there has been no damage throughout the school.”
Haynes said repairs are steadily underway, and that conversations related to an official return date to in-person learning are ongoing.
Based on current assessments, Haynes expects for the school to be fully operational before the end of the school year, but said that Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks will make an official announcement as to when students can resume in-person learning.
“We have a construction crew here right now, and we are very hopeful that we will be able to get students back in front of teachers relatively soon,” he said. “Nothing takes the place of in-person learning. Research shows that the best type of learning is what our teachers do face-to-face. We have students that do very well in that environment, but we also have students that do remote learning.”
The community has also played a large role in the school’s recovery process. In the wake of the storms, Haynes said churches, parents and universities have contacted him requesting to help.
“I have been amazed and touched by the way this community has come together. There have been so many people reaching out to us at the school and asking how they can help,” Haynes said.
The school is planning several volunteer cleanup days in response to the heavy community outreach and will announce dates for those events once it receives clearance from county and state officials.
Many Oak Mountain students and faculty members are already partaking in cleanup operations across Shelby County.
Teachers recently helped clean up debris in the Eagle Point neighborhood, which was severely damaged by the tornado, while students also held a disaster-relief fundraiser at Veterans Park, which raised more than $3,000.
In the meantime, Haynes said he is committed to ensuring that students’ education is not impacted by the storm, and that the school has transitioned to online learning and virtual classrooms. Haynes said teachers have also implemented schedules to meet with students individually.
Catherine Acton, who teaches eighth grade English language arts at the school, said the transition to online learning has been relatively smooth because procedures and platforms were already in place due to COVID-19.
“We were already equipped with a platform and other resources to share lessons and assignments with students, but our in-person communication ended so abruptly,” Acton said. “We miss our kids and we miss our co-workers. A lot of our best friends are the people we work with; we consider ourselves a family.”