GMG cancels classes after pipe break

A mobile dehumidifier sits outside of the north wing of the GMG secondary building after a pipe burst last Friday night, causing extensive water damage. The north wing was originally constructed in 1920. -- Photo by Darvin Graham

Days after returning from the winter break, students at Green Mountain-Garwin (GMG) Secondary School are back at home to start the second week of the new year.

On Saturday morning, district officials announced that the secondary facility in Garwin had experienced a major water pipe breakage in the three-story north wing of the building the night before. The interior sustained extensive damage as water made its way through the walls, ceilings and floors of the brick structure, which was originally built in 1920.

During the monthly school board meeting on Monday, GMG High School Principal Jaimie Gargas said he and teacher Tiya Montano were returning from a debate competition the previous Friday night when Montano — who was about 10 minutes ahead of Gargas — told him there were “waterfalls on the stairs, and it was raining in the hallway.”

“I couldn’t even conceptualize what she was talking about to the extent,” Gargas said. “Between the second and third floor… there’s a two-inch pipe that had a t-junction, and it just came apart. It didn’t freeze. It was just a 100-year-old pipe (that) decided it was time and came apart.”

In Gargas’s estimation, the break happened sometime between 7:30 and 10 p.m., but as he noted, the damage could’ve been substantially worse if it hadn’t been discovered on Friday night.

GMG High School Principal Jaimie Gargas addresses the school board about the recent pipe breakage at the secondary building during Monday night’s monthly meeting. -- Photo by Robert Maharry

Several staff members and their spouses almost immediately began doing what they could to remove as much water as they could, and Superintendent Kym Stein quickly made calls to the district’s insurance company. ServiceMaster arrived with three van-loads full of employees by 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

“Everybody stepped up to the plate. I just, I can’t say enough about our community — especially our teachers, our administration and staff. They did what we needed to do and got it done,” Stein said.

Currently, 11 classrooms, the library, the nurse’s office, the teacher workroom, the counselor’s office, the custodian’s office, the buildings and grounds office and several storage spaces are completely unusable. Two computers were “significantly wet,” and all of the robots in the robotics room were “soaked,” according to Gargas. Fortunately, however, no textbooks were damaged or lost as a result of the breakage.

Junior and senior high classes were canceled for Monday and Tuesday, and Gargas presented a tentative long-term schedule during the board meeting on Monday night.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the district will run the final exam schedule that was meant to start on Monday. After the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday on Monday, Jan. 17, junior high students will come to school on Tuesday, Jan. 18, while high school students will stay home. They will alternate the following day, with high school students in school and junior high students staying home and finishing the homework assigned the day before.

This alternating routine will continue indefinitely (representatives of ServiceMaster have estimated a minimum of two weeks), and students who are at home will have the opportunity to contact their teachers via email or Zoom to ask questions about their homework.

“We do not want to do distance learning. We do not want to do virtual. It doesn’t work well. Our kids don’t like it. We don’t like it, (and) our parents don’t like it,” Gargas said.

Gargas said district leadership is also looking into accommodations for students who do not have internet access, and lunch will be available to all students who indicate that they wish to eat by 8:45 a.m. each day.

The pipe breakage did not affect the newest section of the building, which includes the gym and locker rooms and was completed in 2010. In a social media post shared on Saturday night, district leaders said the main gym will still be available for winter activities. The damaged portion of the building, however, will remain closed to students and staff as restoration professionals work to mitigate the situation.

Students at GMG Elementary School in Green Mountain will continue their classes as planned with no interruptions. Stein and Gargas were set to go through the building and itemize damages on Tuesday, and they plan to meet with Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo next week to ensure that the district is in compliance with all state guidelines during the interim period.

“We’re trying to be as proactive with all of this as we can, and I honestly cannot say enough about the way the faculty has just crushed this,” Gargas said. “In half a day, we had the plan that we needed, (and) the second half of the day, they were already setting up for it.”