A rusted metal plug no larger than a silver dollar and costing less than $6 has forced the closure of Toll Gate High School for the week.
At about 8 a.m. Saturday the plug burst from a water valve inside a utility well in the floor of the Toll Gate High School cafeteria. Water rushed through the hallways into classrooms and restrooms on the first floor. It spilled down to the shop rooms and into the auditorium hallway.
The water ran for about 30 minutes before it was noticed by a custodian who had been in the upper section of the school. It took an additional hour before the Kent County water authority shut off the supply, according to Kevin Oliver, Warwick Public Schools Maintenance & Custodial Supervisor. Warwick Fire Department trucks pumped water from the building. Crews from the Department of Public Works also assisted in the cleanup.
“I commend the excellent work of my team, including Public Works, Public Safety, our School Department, and in particular, our Water Division, whose quick action prevented even more damage,” Mayor Joseph J. Solomon said in a statement. “The cause of [the] leak at Toll Gate High School was determined early Saturday morning by a vigilant Water Division employee, who swiftly fixed the problem.”
By Saturday afternoon, the water had been pushed out the doors and mopped up. As of Monday, fans and a thin plastic tubing air ventilation system continued to dry the area.
Superintendent Philip Thornton is looking at a nine-day window to restore normal operations.
“I realize this is a major inconvenience for parents,” Mayor Solomon said. “But the safety of our kids is my priority, and we have to ensure that the building is safe and clean for our students.”
Until the repairs are made and the air inside the school has been confirmed as safe, no classes will be held inside the building.
“We will not let anyone in until it’s been air tested and approved,” Oliver said.
But while classes won’t meet inside the building, Thornton said teachers have the ability to host classes online. He said that because each student has a Google Chromebook, students and teachers still have the ability to communicate and carry on with schoolwork. As the Toll Gate cafeteria is used by the adjoining Warwick Area Career and Technical Center and some students also have classes in Toll Gate, the center is also closed.
“We can work on Google Classroom,” Thornton said regarding a short-term replacement.
As of Monday it had not been determined whether the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) will allow those online days to count toward the required total of school days. RIDE requires 180 days and Toll Gate’s academic calendar lists June 16 as the final day of classes. But depending on RIDE’s ruling, that date may change.
RIDE Communications Director Meg Geoghegan said that the school has not submitted their waiver request as of Monday, but expect to have it soon and send a response later this week.
Toll Gate has “President’s Day Break” listed for the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so if everything is restored, there may be only five days of missed class — all depending on RIDE’s decision.
When the plug burst, a stream one to two inches deep ran through the cafeteria and auditorium hallway. Facilities Maintenance and Operations Assistant Manager for Warwick Schools, Donna Higgins, said that there were no issues in the auditorium itself other than wet carpeting. As the hallway floor is pitched slightly toward the outside doors, much of the water ran out of that section of the school, which was built in 1992 — 20 years after the rest of the school opened.
“We literally had to open up the doors to relieve the water,” Higgins said.
The older section of the school won’t be an easy fix. The water lifted asbestos tiles in the hallway and classroom that will now require removal and replacement.
Oliver said that the cafeteria and auditorium hallway are not “hot”, meaning they will not need to be replaced immediately, but instead will be done in the summer. Some hallway tiles by the classrooms, however, will need to be replaced during the nine days.
“Some of the flooring in the hallways and the classrooms is original to the building. It’s three percent asbestos [in] either tile or glue. So once it’s loose, we can’t leave it, we must remove it. So that’s the plan,” Thornton said.
Oliver said that the school is using a company named Single Source to help with water removal. The Warwick company specializes in disaster recovery. Some sheetrock where the wall meets the floor needed to be cut out as well and will need to be replaced.
As of Monday, Oliver said that they do not know how much it will cost to repair the school, but will know when they receive the damage assessment from Single Source.
“Once we dry the area, the next step is to look at the damage in terms of equipment, instruments and also the facility itself,” Thornton said.
Anthony Ferrucci, Warwick Public Schools Executive Director of Finance and Operations, said that the cost of repairs will be covered by the school’s insurance and expects to know the exact cost within the next few days.