ERWIN — Love Chapel Elementary School is now permanently closed and, since a large sinkhole was discovered on the school’s grounds in August, classes for Love Chapel students have been held in available space at other Unicoi County schools.
School system officials have previously stated they hope Love Chapel’s students will have a “place of their own” by the time school resumes following the summer break and, at its regular meeting Thursday, the Unicoi County Board of Education is set to to discuss and consider the school system’s long-term relocation plan for Love Chapel.
Love Chapel had been closed since the sinkhole was discovered near the school on Aug. 18. Crews arrived on the scene and dumped around 100 tons of rock into the sinkhole, which had grown to around 25 feet in diameter, in order to stabilize it. Measurements taken after the sinkhole was stabilized indicated it was around 120 feet deep, with the last 25 feet being water.
Classes at the school were canceled for the week of Aug. 20, and a relocation plan for students was implemented on Aug. 27. This short-term relocation plan saw students in kindergarten through second grade relocated to Unicoi County Intermediate School, and third-grade students were moved to available space at Unicoi County Middle School.
Crews from Florida-based HSA Engineers and Scientists sent by the school system’s insurance provider conducted drilling around the sinkhole to collect soil and other samples for testing in late August. A report later issued by the engineering firm offered remediation recommendations.
However, before opting to proceed with remediation, the Board of Education voted in December to hire HSA Engineers & Scientists to conduct further testing across the Love Chapel grounds. The firm conducted testing in December and January, which included taking 16 soil borings in various areas across the approximately 6-acre property.
The results of this additional testing led to the board’s Feb. 14 vote in favor of permanently closing Love Chapel. According to HSA’s report, four areas on the property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two other areas were found to be in the process of developing sinkhole activity.
At an informational meeting held at Unicoi County High School on Feb. 18, Director of Schools Denise Brown said the sinkhole that had already opened on the property along with the threat of future sinkholes led to the board’s decision to close the school.
“When you hear that you’re going to have moderate to high risk of sinkhole activity and you’ve had 16 borings done and, out of the 16, four of them are most certainly sinkhole activity with two others showing lots of weathering that could turn into a sinkhole, the very first thing is the safety of our students,” Brown said at the Feb. 18 meeting.
At the meeting, Brown also discussed the need for a long-term relocation plan for Love Chapel students. She said school officials would need to move quickly if they were to meet their goal of finding a more functional location for the students before school resumes in August.
“We have to move at that rate in order to have everything ready to go in August,” Brown said. “And, I think, when you look at this, I think you have to realistically talk about a three-year plan. If you started today, if you had an architect hired, starting design of the school, finding property. Property in Unicoi County is not readily available, so there’s a lot of things, as we move forward, we’ll be looking at all those issues.”