On Thursday, teachers and staff at Colony High School in Palmer returned to the school for the first time since last month's massive earthquake.

Students will arrive for the first time on Friday, two weeks after the 7.0 magnitude quake rocked the region. 

"The gymnasium sustained structural damage," said Principal Brendon McMahon. "For that reason it's closed off. We had cinder blocks laying on the track above the gym. We also had cinder blocks all over stairways."

Mat-Su Borough School District officials knew that wasn't a good sign.

"We also had what a lot of other people had," McMahon said. "Bookshelves overturned, ceiling tiles all over the place, pictures and books strewn about, a lot of cleanup."

Before allowing students back into the district's largest school, educators' No. 1 priority was safety.

"In large part it took a while to determine how much needed to be done and for the engineers to do their reporting," McMahon said. "We have the gymnasium situation and a number of air leaks in the HVAC system, they had to track all those down and they told us it was like looking for needles in a haystack."

While most classes will go on as normal, being without the gymnasium will take some creativity.

"Having this gym offline means we have to be creative in where we practice and have games," said district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey. "This gym is always busy, not only for students, but it's also important for community usage."

Despite the loss of the gym for the time being, getting the 1,100-plus students back in school even on a Friday is paramount. 

"We are excited to get these students back," Morrissey said. "It has been so disruptive for these students between activities and academics, it's been a challenge to keep students engaged."

"They only have two days left of instruction and three days left of finals before we break for Christmas," McMahon said. "As a staff and as a school we are promoting that we will be very flexible with the students and families and work with them because it is a extraordinary circumstance."

Finger Lake Elementary will also welcome back students on Friday morning. Earlier in the week on Wednesday, Houston High School reopened. On Thursday, junior high students joined the high schoolers in the same building.

"It's now our Houston High/Junior High," Morrissey said. "The school can't fit all the students, so each period there is a class outside doing some rec activity. During the holiday break we will bring in 11 [portable classrooms] on site for the students."

With Colony High School and Finger Lake welcoming back their students, that leaves only one of the Mat-Su Borough School District's 47 school yet to open, Colony Middle School. 

"The hope is we will have teachers and staff returning on Tuesday," Morrissey said. "On Wednesday we hope to have the students arrive. We're not sure if it is going to happen, it's all preliminary but we're hopeful."

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