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Earthquake Recovery for L.A. Schools May Take Months

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As waves of strong aftershocks continued to jolt southern California last week, Los Angeles school officials took stock of the damage from the deadly earthquake that hit their city and predicted it would be months before their school system is fully up and running again.

Classes were canceled all of last week for the 640,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which was hardest hit by the Jan. 17 earthquake. And school districts in some of the surrounding areas canceled classes for all or part of the week as well.

Patrick Spencer, a spokesman for the L.A.U.S.D., said the temblor, which measured 6.6 on the Richter scale, caused major damage to more than 170 of the district's 650 schools. That count was expected to rise in the wake of continuing aftershocks, at least two of which carried the force of a smaller earthquake.

At least 24 schools may have to have buildings torn down and will probably not reopen for the remainder of the school year, Mr. Spencer said.

$700 Million in Damages

School officials estimated that the cost of repairing all of the damages to schools could be up to $700 million.

"We know the district doesn't have that kind of money, and we're wary of whether the state even has that kind of money,'' said Leticia Quezada, the president of the Los Angeles school board.

The damage at schools ranged from fallen light fixtures and spilled bookcases to crumbled walls and collapsed ceilings.

One of the hardest-hit schools was Kennedy Senior High School in Granada Hills. There, an administration building was completely destroyed, floors buckled, bungalows were rocked off their foundations, and concrete walls were left with gaping holes.

"It looked like it had been shelled by artillery,'' Mr. Spencer said.

Most of the heavily damaged schools, like Kennedy High School, were located north of downtown Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, near the earthquake's epicenter.

'A Logistical Nightmare'

A handful of schools in downtown Los Angeles were devastated by the quake as well.

At Marvin Elementary School, which sits just beneath a section of the Santa Monica Freeway that crumbled in the earthquake, four to five classroom buildings were damaged.

"In one buiding,'' said Principal Anna McLinn, "you can look from one classroom to another.''

"Because of the way the building shifted, none of our youngsters would have been able to get out if they had been here,'' Ms. McLinn added.

The quake struck before dawn on the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

"I'm going to have to send my 1st grade here and my 2nd grade there,'' Ms. McLinn said. "With so many schools damaged in the valley, where are we going to bus kids from right here in the major city?''

District officials estimated that as many as 200,000 students may have to be bused or rerouted when school opens again. The task of reconfiguring those routes is complicated because as many as 33,000 students from overcrowded downtown schools were already being bused to schools in the San Fernando Valley before the earthquake hit.

As a result, school officials will have to find schools for those students as well as for displaced students from the valley.

And, with many of the city's major freeways damaged, the commute for some students and teachers could be up to two hours long, educators predicted last week.

"It's going to be a logistical nightmare,'' Ms. Quezada said.

Federal Aid Eyed

To accommodate the influx, schools may have to hold double sessions or bring in portable classrooms, she said.

Also, as of late last week, many of the district's schools were still without potable water or electricity.

"Even if we had the capacity to house and feed students, there would still be the question of whether we could staff the school,'' said Tom Hunter, an assistant principal at San Fernando Middle School, noting that many teachers had their own homes destroyed in the earthquake. Staff members who could were asked to report to work Jan. 19 at all of the city's schools.

The district's school buildings were not insured against earthquake damage. The district did have a $30 million emergency fund, but that has already been tapped this year to cover schools damaged by brush fires or vandalism, according to Ms. Quezada.

School officials petitioned state and federal officials for disaster-relief funds, but there was no word late last week on how much the school system would receive.

Thomas W. Payzant, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said the district also may be eligible for federal impact aid to cover losses from reduced property-tax revenues or from excess costs of operation due to the disaster, such as the cost of rerouting buses.

Emotional Scars

Besides the damage to school buildings, a number of educators expressed concerns about the emotional scars students may carry from the earthquake and its after-effects.

"Our children have been traumatized and confused, not only because they've been displaced in their homes, but also because their schools are closed,'' Ms. Quezada said.

Students' emotional problems were a particular concern at Marvin Elementary, which was at the center of the rioting that rocked Los Angeles in 1992. In another blow, a woman was found strangled on the campus last fall.

"When you talk about trauma,'' Ms. McLinn observed, "these kids have already been through a lot.''

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