There are 119 schools in Utah likely to be unsafe in an earthquake, with experts worried about the potential for falling bricks, collapsing classrooms and kids getting injured.
“[These] are occupied by children and should be a priority for protection,” the accompanying report says.
The list was published Thursday, nearly two years after a 5.7 magnitude quake rattled northern Utah, with its epicenter in Magna. Several school buildings were severely damaged, including Granite School District’s West Lake STEM Junior High in West Valley City, which was permanently closed after bricks rained down from the roof into an entryway.
But with the pandemic pushing schools into online learning in spring 2020, no kids were inside and nobody was hurt. Officials say they don’t think the state will be as lucky when the next inevitable quake comes, unless leaders start taking action to address the at-risk buildings now.
They hope the Magna quake will be considered “a wake-up call to prepare” and the inventory will show state leaders where to begin.
Many of the identified schools were constructed more than 60 years ago, before there were building codes for earthquake safety that came in the early 1970s. Some date back even further. The oldest on the list is Grouse Creek Elementary in northern Utah’s Box Elder County. It was built in 1912 and has just seven kids enrolled this year. Another, Bountiful Junior High, went up in 1915; it has 655 students.
All of the schools on the list are unreinforced masonry — considered the most dangerous construction, where a building is made of bricks and blocks without supporting steel.
In some of the unstable school buildings there are deep holes in foundations. In a few, bricks are loose and slipping out of exterior walls. In one, there were visible cracks running up the hallways inside.
Seismologists predict some of those in the worst repair could be crushed in less than 60 seconds if the ground starts shaking as it’s expected to when “the big one” hits the state.
If that happens during the school day, students and teachers could be trapped. The report notes that in the 119 impacted buildings, there are more then 72,000 kids who attend classes there — or 12% of the K-12 population in Utah.
The report states there’s a 43% chance of a 6.7 magnitude or greater earthquake occurring along the Wasatch Front in the next 50 years.
“In comparison to the magnitude 5.7 Magna earthquake,” the report adds, “a magnitude 6.7 earthquake will release about 30 times the energy.”
Kris Hamlet, director of the Utah Division of Emergency Management, hopes publishing the list now will spur action.
“We believe this transparency will help unite communities and identify resources to eventually fix or replace the remaining buildings and ultimately keep our students safer,” he said.
Here are the main takeaways from the report for parents to know, including a list of the schools identified in the inventory:
List of schools
State leaders have long refused to identify at-risk schools
There have been five separate reports to Utah leaders in the past 26 years with estimates and warnings about the safety of schools during an earthquake. But little action has been taken by the top.
Leaders have refused to figure out which schools are at risk — which is why this inventory is not funded by the state.
Instead, the work to identify the safety of school buildings was conducted by Utah seismology experts with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And it’s the first time they’ve had the money to do the research.
The report also details several legislative efforts to fund schools repairs that have failed over the years.
State lawmakers have rejected at least five bills on the topic since 2007, as well as several requests from school districts to fund construction where it’s needed to bring buildings up to seismic code. Leaders point to “local control” and say it’s up to school districts to assess what buildings need fixing and to budget for it.
The funding approach has resulted in inequities
Districts in richer neighborhoods can typically get a bond passed to cover those studies and pay for construction of new or retrofitted buildings.
Several districts in poorer areas of the state haven’t been able to afford to even have assessments done on which of their buildings are unsafe. So, before this inventory, some were unaware of which of their schools would be on the list.
It’s an equity issue, the report states.
For instance, Davis School District said in 2011 that it didn’t have the funds to tear down buildings, as its enrollment was surging and it was trying to just find enough chairs for its students. The district currently has the second highest number of schools needing to be replaced or repaired, with 17 of its 90 buildings considered unreinforced masonry.
The district has been working to retrofit as many as it can. And it has made adjustments to at least 12 of those 17 schools.
By comparison, Alpine School District, the largest in the state, has eight of its 88 buildings needing repair. It sits in Utah County, where the average weekly wage is higher than in Davis, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Put another way: Alpine District has slightly more students than Davis but less than half as many buildings that are unsafe.
One Salt Lake County district has the most buildings on the list
Of the five public school districts in Salt Lake County, one is affected much more than the others with having outdated schools.
Granite School District has 20 buildings on the list — making it the highest, as well, in the state. It has 92 schools total. That makes 22% of the student body there in unsafe buildings, compared to the statewide 12% of students impacted.
Of those listed as a concern, 12 are elementary schools, seven are junior highs and one is a high school. Skyline High is slated to be replaced in 2026 with a bond.
But Granite spokesperson Ben Horsley said finding the money to do these projects is difficult. A new high school can cost between $80 million to $145 million to build. And the district sits in a less affluent area, which has one of the most diverse student populations in the state — including the highest percentage of refugee families.
The district has a 40-year-old plan, which is how long it estimates it will take to address the issues.
“It’s frankly a billion-dollar problem,” Horsley said. “I do appreciate that attention the state has brought to this topic. But I also hope with that scrutiny there’s some additional resources brought to bear so we can do something about it.”
Meanwhile, in Canyons School District, at the more affluent south end of Salt Lake County, just three of the 44 schools there are listed as having unreinforced masonry. And one of those has been retrofitted and is just waiting verification from seismologists to make sure it worked properly.
The district was able to approve a $283 million bond with the help of voters in 2017.
Similarly, Salt Lake City School District has worked to retrofit all of its schools, starting in the 1980s; verification is pending only for West High. And Jordan School District has none on the list.
The state is looking at appropriating $3.7 million
Joe Dougherty, the spokesperson for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, acknowledged the issues with funding.
The Legislature is currently considering a $3.8 million appropriation request this session that would allow schools to more closely survey their buildings and see what work needs to be done to make them safer — whether that’s tearing them down and rebuilding or retrofitting.
Dougherty said the inventory is not meant to be a “condemnation of the schools or the school districts” that haven’t yet been able to fix their buildings. Instead, he said, the hope is to be transparent about what’s needed and push for funding.
There has been recent progress
The report says that 60 years ago, an estimated 95% of Utah schools were unsafe and unreinforced masonry. So 12% now is an improvement.
“We still have a long way to go, but we’ve already come pretty far,” Dougherty said.
And, overall in the state, there are 140,000 unreinforced structures. So schools are also just a fraction of that.
The report doesn’t look at private or charter schools
The inventory counts only K-12 schools in the 41 traditional districts in Utah. Overall, that accounts for 896 buildings and roughly 660,000 students.
Most counties had issues, but nine did not
Of the 29 counties in Utah, nine had no schools with issues. Those are: Beaver, Carbon, Grand, Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Wasatch and Washington.
All are generally smaller counties with fewer schools and students.
Students are worried
Wyatt Grow is a senior at Morgan High, which isn’t on the inventory after recent repairs. Without those, it would have been, though. And he and his siblings were recently attending Morgan Middle, which is.
Morgan Middle was constructed in 1923 — making it the third oldest school on the list.
He said they never knew they were in an unsafe school, and Grow worries about the kids there now, as well as at the other unreinforced masonry classrooms across the state.
“We all deserve to attend a safe school,” he said. “And we deserve to know if we’re not in a safe school, too.”
Grow is the co-president of the Youth Council at Envision Utah, a regional planning agency. The students in that group have been pushing for the state to address safety concerns, particularly seismic safety, in their schools.
They recently conducted a survey among 2,500 of their high school peers in the state that showed 90% thought the topic was important.
The council put out a statement Thursday that said: “We have a special interest in the safety of our schools because we spend so much of our time there, both during school hours and after school.”
The students encouraged the state to look at the report, expand the inventory to include charters and private schools and to allocate funding to address the issues.
Seismic leaders offer recommendations
The report also includes several recommendations from seismology experts. Those include:
Moving beyond unreinforced masonry buildings to look at other unsafe structures.
Applying set building standards for Utah schools.
And establishing a target date for all unsafe schools to be repurposed, retrofitted or demolished.
Schools, the report states, are essential structures because they’re often the place people turn to in the case of an emergency. But if they’re destroyed because of a disaster, recovering from an earthquake could take even longer.
The inventory, said Keith Koper, director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and a member of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, “has been a long time coming and represents an important step forward in making Utah more resilient to damage from earthquakes.”