Chattanooga schools reflect on one-year anniversary of Easter tornado

One year ago, a tornado ripped through the Chattanooga area, killing two people in Hamilton County and seven in Murray County, Georgia, and damaging homes, businesses and schools across the region.

The storm destroyed 15 buildings at Grace Baptist Academy, scattered debris across East Brainerd Elementary School, damaged the roof at Ooltewah Middle School and flooded Soddy Elementary School, among other damage.

On the one-year anniversary of the tornado, schools that were heavily impacted by the storm, including East Brainerd Elementary and Grace Academy, have taken steps to rebuild and return to the classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the storm, Grace Academy headmaster Matt Pollock began scouting a facility for the school. After meeting with the pastoral staff at Morris Hill Baptist Church and discussing the situation, the church became the home of Grace Academy students and faculty for this school year.

“Once we toured their facilities and my principals came in with me, we sat down and said ‘yeah, we can do this,'” Pollock said. “The church was informed as a body, members, and [received] great affirmation from them and it has been a wonderful hospitality since.”

The school has operated with entirely in-person learning this year with virtual learning for students in quarantine or who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. A groundbreaking ceremony for the school and church took place in December, and for the 2021-22 school year Grace Academy will continue operating out of Morris Hill Baptist Church.

The school will open in phases, with a partial reopening in early 2022 and full reopening planned for fall 2022.

“In the past we were segmented: elementary school, middle school, high school, main building, office building, it was kind of spread out, and so students and staff traveled from building to building outside and vehicles traveled through the center of campus,” Pollock said.

Replacing the 15 demolished buildings will be five interconnected buildings where students and staff will not have to go outside to travel from one building to another. The $40 million project will centralize the campus, as opposed to the school’s original layout and growth when it was built in 1985.

“What we are going to build is completely different from what was previously there,” Pollock said.

For the fall semester, the newly constructed East Hamilton Middle School became the temporary home of East Brainerd Elementary.

“It was certainly an adventure to assign everyone to rooms in a building that was designed for bigger kids, but our staff was incredibly flexible, our families were incredibly flexible as we moved out toward Apison temporarily,” said East Brainerd Elementary assistant principal Brandon Hubbard-Heitz.

Total reconstruction of East Brainerd Elementary cost $23.5 million. Construction was spearheaded by the district, while school administrators focused on supporting families.

“It wasn’t just our school that got affected and us working to support our families, it was all of Hamilton County Schools that were calling and offering supports and providing resources to reach out to our families,” said Jane Phillips, assistant principal at East Brainerd Elementary. “We couldn’t meet the needs of our families and children that were affected without the support of all of our community and Hamilton County Schools and outside.”

Hamilton County Schools has opened for in-person instruction in phases. Renovations at East Brainerd Elementary wrapped up in January and in-person learning restarted for the spring semester in February. Phillips said the school community is resilient.

“It’s like a full circle, like we have finally evolved and come full circle from recovering from the tornado,” Phillips said.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at [email protected] or 423-757-6592.