Wolf Branch District 113 is evacuating its middle school after it was damaged by mine subsidence.
But Superintendent Scott Harres says he hopes the cracks and buckling tiles can eventually be repaired at the 15-year-old building.
Starting next week, the middle school students will move into the elementary school building.
All Wolf Branch schools will be closed Thursday and Friday while staff and other volunteers prepare the elementary building for the transition.
Harres made the announcement in a message to parents dated Tuesday, Sept. 12.
“While extra space at the (Wolf Branch) Elementary School is limited, the administration has developed a plan to utilize nearly every square inch of the building,” Harres wrote. “We know that these moves will create growing pains and hurdles. However, in the interest of our students’ safety, and following today’s consultation meeting with the Department of Natural Resources’ engineers, we have concluded that there is not a viable alternate way of safely serving daily hot lunch selections.”
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued a public statement Tuesday afternoon that said Wolf Branch Middle School sits on top of the abandoned Summit Mine. The subsidence, or gradual sinking, is affecting about three acres of land, according to IDNR.
At the beginning of the week, the district restricted access to its cafeteria, gym, locker rooms and weight room. It also closed the eastern entrance to the building. The IDNR on Tuesday advised the district close off more areas, including its kitchen serving area and band room, according to Harres.
Classes were in session Wednesday at the middle school, with students getting pizza or a sack lunch in the library. Starting Monday, Sept. 18, the middle school will be closed, and school officials don’t know for how long. IDNR has said it will continue monitoring the ground movement under the building until it stops or becomes more minor.
Mine subsidence has caused damage at other metro-east schools, including Joseph Arthur Middle School in O’Fallon, the old Belle Valley North in Belleville and the old Dorris School in Collinsville.
Because the metro-east is filled with underground mines, Harres said “precautions” were taken when the architects and engineers constructed Wolf Branch Middle School in 2002.
“It’s my understanding that they did take certain precautions,” he said. “I was a fifth-grade science teacher at the time in the other building, and my only concern at that time was exciting kids about science.
“From what the engineers from the Department of Natural Resources have told me, there’s a number of things that could have occurred, and so I don’t know that (the builders) could have done anything that would have given a 100 percent guarantee.”
In Collinsville’s case, students moved out of Dorris School and the building was eventually demolished after it experienced mine subsidence. Belle Valley North was evacuated, and the wing that was damaged was demolished.
Joseph Arthur Middle School’s damage hasn’t caused any safety concerns, and engineers haven’t detected more movement for the last year. If that continues, Central District 104 Superintendent Dawn Elser said the floor could be repaired by next summer.
Harres said the goal is to move students back into Wolf Branch Middle School if it can be repaired, too.
“My main goal, my main intention is to get back in here as quickly as possible — but not until all the parts of the building that currently have been labeled as unsafe are safe once again,” he said.
As the subsidence issues have progressed quickly at the Swansea school, Harres said Wolf Branch has been hearing from parents, the village of Swansea, Swansea police, local churches, businesses and other school districts.
“Everybody is calling and saying, ‘Can I help?’” Harres said.
Parents like Kelly Rose are among the volunteers who plan to move items into the elementary school — or offer food to those who do, along with the area businesses.
“We’re so happy that the staff and the administration has taken the necessary steps to keep the kids safe,” Rose said. “... We want to help make the transition as easy as possible.”
The churches and school districts are offering to let Wolf Branch students use their facilities for the indoor sports teams, according to Harres. And police want to help guide traffic at the elementary school, where there will be even more buses and other vehicles adding congestion.
“I really am overwhelmed by the support and offers for help that we’re getting,” Harres said.
District 113 staff are “really coming together,” too, he said.
The elementary school will be more crowded, but Harres said it has housed more students before.
In the late 1990s, he said there were about 950 students at the elementary school building. Next week, there will be about 850 students from the entire district in that building.