PITTMAN CENTER (WATE) – It was back to school for the students of Pi Beta Phi Elementary in Gatlinburg Wednesday, but not much was the same for them.
“Nervous to see who’s coming back to school and who’s not, and to see how friends are, how their homes are,” said Enda Lopez.
Lopez is a mother of two at Pi Beta Phi. Their family is still staying in a hotel, unable to return home.
“When we left the house there was people running out from their cars and leaving their cars screaming, ‘There’s a fire coming, there’s a fire coming!’ and so mine had a couple nightmares saying, ‘Are we going to burn?'” Lopez said.
Their school is still standing, but it is filled with the smell of smoke.
For now kindergarten through fifth grade is at the former Pittman Center School. Sixth graders are at the Eugene W. Huskey Environmental Center while seventh and eighth grade students were bused to the Boys and Girls Club of Gatlinburg.
“People have been working night and day to get these children back to school and to be back at school in a place where they’re going to feel warm and safe and secure,” said Assistant Superintendent Debra Cline.
What was so important to the faculty and the school system was to give the kids a sense of normalcy. They spent the past week renovating the old Pittman Center school building and even had a new Pi Beta Phi sign made specifically for the school.
“The smiles, the happiness that we saw is something that makes all the work that’s gone into being able to renovate this facility in such a short amount of time really worth while,” Cline said.
Cline said 56 Pi Beta Phi students lost their homes, and five employees either lost or had significant damage to their homes. As of Wednesday afternoon they had made direct or indirect contact with close to 85 percent of students at Pi Beta phi and the process was continuing.
The temporary schools, while they may not be what the kids are used to, are filled with people trying to help.
“They have really been calling us and pretty much every day ‘How are you? Do you need anything?’ so they have really been more than friendly than I can explain I would say,” Lopez said.
The school system is hoping students will be able to return to the Pi Beta Phi school in downtown Gatlinburg next semester.