Rebuilding Riverbend: Students return to Juneau elementary school after flood

Riverbend Elementary School students Jet Duskin, Zaylee Helge, McKayla Paul, Edalynne Roters, Sophia Yadao and Alexandria Torba pose in front of a classroom on Feb. 28, 2022.
Riverbend Elementary School students Jet Duskin, Zaylee Helge, McKayla Paul, Edalynne Roters, Sophia Yadao and Alexandria Torba pose in front of a classroom on Feb. 28, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

In January, Juneau’s Riverbend Elementary School was forced to close and temporarily relocate. About two-thirds of the school flooded with water when two pipes burst during a cold snap.

For several weeks, Riverbend Elementary teachers held their classes at Chapel by the Lake, a church about two miles up the road from the school. There, students were seated around tables instead of desks and they switched to indoor play time instead of recess because the church didn’t have a playground.

Now, students and staff are back in their old building, but Riverbend principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said it’s not quite the same.

“All of our floors are cement and most of the walls are drywall,” Pisel-Davis said. “Here in our main hall, it’s all the way up to the ceiling. But in other areas, it’s up to about three or four feet. That was all of the drywall that had to be taken out because it was wet.”

The halls of Riverbend Elementary School are just drywall and concrete after repairs due to a January flood.
The halls of Riverbend Elementary School are just drywall and concrete after repairs due to a January flood. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

Just down the hall, students are filing out of a large classroom that has been turned into a temporary exercise room. Staff are calling it “The Riverbend Pop Up Fitness Studio.”

“We don’t have a gym right now,” Pisel-Davis said. “Since we can’t do the typical soccer, basketball and things like that, students are doing yoga and calisthenics and different kinds of things in this smaller space, but it’s been working really great.”

She put out a call for yoga mats on Facebook and now the fitness studio has plenty of padding to protect the kids from the room’s cement floor. The building does have a gymnasium, but right now, Pisel-Davis said it’s full of teachers’ things.

When the school flooded, everything that could be saved was moved to the gym.

“And then when we found out we were able to come back, but we knew that we’d have to move out again at the end of the school year,” Pisel-Davis said. “We didn’t want to unpack all the things in the gym. In fact, we’re kind of slowly adding to them and only having in our classrooms what we need right now.”

They’ll have to move out of classrooms again this summer because there’s still work to be done. Some classrooms are still closed. Several doors have bright pink signs on them that say, “Do not enter. Construction Zone.”

The gym at Riverbend Elementary School is being used to store items saved from classrooms after the school flooded in January
The gym at Riverbend Elementary School is being used to store items saved from classrooms after the school flooded in January. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

“They weren’t able to be restored to a place where we could open them back up again because of ongoing leaks from the roof and things not being able to be repaired before the summer,” Pisel-Davis said.

In the classrooms that are being used, desks sit on top of temporary flooring — sheets of plywood and large pre-cut squares of carpet.

Some students have been writing opinion pieces about which building they liked learning in more — Chapel by the Lake or their partially repaired building. Third-grader Alexandria Torba said she liked Riverbend a lot before it flooded.

“I think I like Chapel by the Lake better because you can get more exercise because you also have to walk up a bunch of stairs and stuff,” she said.

But Torba’s classmate Edalynne Roters said it’s good to be back.

“I think it just feels comforting,” Edalynne said. “I’m just kind of more used to it.”

And she said at Chapel by the Lake, her class had to share a space with others.

“It was a little loud having two classrooms in the same room,” Edalynne said. “So it’s kind of nice to have some more quiet.”

Construction crews are waiting until students are out for the summer before finishing repairs on the roof, putting in carpet and painting the walls.

Bridget Dowd

Local News Reporter

I keep tabs on what’s happening in Juneau’s classrooms for the families they serve and the people who work in them. My goal is to shine a light on both stories of success and the cracks that need to be filled, because I believe a good education is the basis of a strong community.

Member support ensures trusted, fact-based news is always available for you and your neighbors. Support your reliable news source today. Donate to KTOO.

Read next

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications