A new report by state and federal officials released Thursday identified 119 Utah public school campuses with structures constructed of unreinforced masonry, which means they are susceptible to significant earthquake damage during moderate and even low earthquake shaking. 

Such construction poses a threat to people in these schools and those in close proximity to the structures, the report states.

The inventory, released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management, notes that children spend the majority of their weekday waking hours at school.

“While schools provide an environment for learning, socialization and personal growth, we generally assume the buildings themselves are sturdy. Unfortunately, some schools by virtue of their age or construction materials can pose a potential safety risk to those very same children. Most noteworthy in Utah, with its high earthquake hazard, are schools constructed of bricks with little or no steel reinforcement,” the report states.

However, a joint state and federal press release notes, “Just because a school is on the list, does not mean it is at an imminent risk of collapse.”

The report, titled “Utah K-12 Public Schools Unreinforced Masonry Inventory,” found 20 of Utah’s 29 counties have at least one school campus with a URM building or addition. Those facilities serve a combined 72,126 children, about 12% of the state’s total public school population. 

According to the Utah State Board of Education, there are 979 district schools in Utah.

“School buildings are one of the most utilized spaces in our cities, commonly serving as resources for community events and emergency shelters. They are occupied by children and should be a priority for protection. But schools also tend to remain in service longer than other types of buildings, and in a state like Utah, where periodic structural inspections are not required by law, they often don’t receive seismic improvements in timely intervals,” according to the report’s executive summary.

The inventory includes Utah schools with original construction dating back to the early 1900s, such as tiny Grouse Creek School in rural Box Elder County, which serves less than 10 students and was initially constructed in 1912.

The facility with the oldest initial construction date is Koosharem School in the Sevier School District, dating back to 1901. About 40 students attend that school.

The vast majority of the schools in the inventory were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

According to the report, URM school construction continued in Utah at least through the 1960s. “It wasn’t until statewide adoption of building codes in the 1970s that URM construction was forbidden across the state,” it states.

The report includes a span of remediation efforts at the 119 sites, although some remain in use. Some schools have been replaced, sold, undergone seismic retrofits or have been demolished. Others are in the process of being replaced.

While a number of Utah counties have at least one campus with a school built with unreinforced masonry, the report notes significant progress in retrofitting or rebuilding schools over the past six decades.

“Sixty years ago, about 95% of schools were URMs. Today, that number is around 12%. This represents dramatic improvements to school safety. It also represents important investments by communities that have voted for bonds to rebuild or retrofit schools to mitigate earthquake damage. Utah should be proud of the progress already made,” a joint state and federal press release states.

But significant work remains to be done, considering the Wasatch Front region is predicted to have a 43% chance of producing a magnitude 6.75 or greater earthquake in the next 50 years, the report states.

Compared to the magnitude 5.7 Magna earthquake on March 18, 2020, “a magnitude 6.7 earthquake will release about 30 times the energy. In such an earthquake, not only will the shaking be much stronger, it also will be longer, causing more widespread and severe damage, particularly to vulnerable construction, like unreinforced masonry,” according to the report.

The ground shaking felt throughout much of Utah during the Magna earthquake “was a reminder that the grand mountain ranges that frame the state’s cities and towns have been formed by millions of years of uplifting geologic activity. The resulting building damage from Magna to Salt Lake gave visual confirmation that unreinforced masonry buildings are vulnerable structures. The event was a wake-up call to prepare for a major earthquake.”

Responding to the report, Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Board of Education, said one of the board’s priorities is safe learning environments for Utah children.

“We do not believe that students and staff in these schools are in immediate danger. However, we anticipate district and charter leaders using the inventory as a helpful tool in planning for building adjustments and safety measures to prepare for an earthquake,” he said.

Envision Utah’s Youth Council issued a statement Thursday noting its “special interest in the safety of our schools because we spend so much of our time there” during and outside school hours.

“We want to know that when we are in school buildings, we are safe, even if a major  earthquake strikes,” the council wrote.

The council recommends that the Utah Legislature should assist school districts that  cannot shoulder the costs of addressing schools at higher risk of extensive damage due to unreinforced masonry construction.

“While some of our school districts can afford these expenditures, others cannot. To promote equity in school safety, the Utah Legislature should make up the difference for these at-risk schools in less affluent districts so that all students can be safe at school,” the council wrote.

Kris Hamlet, director of the Utah Division of Emergency Management, said the unreinforced masonry school building inventory has been an ongoing project for several years. Through financial support from FEMA, state officials have worked closely with school districts to finalize the report.

“We believe this transparency will help unite communities and identify resources to eventually fix or replace the remaining buildings and ultimately keep our students safer,” Hamlet said.

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The Magna earthquake caused substantial damage to West Lake STEM Junior High in West Valley City, which was later deemed “a complete loss,” according to the March 2021 Wasatch Front Unreinforced Masonry Reduction Strategy report.

Two other Granite District schools — Granite Park Junior High and Cyprus High — were also damaged. In Davis School District, Clearfield High School and Davis Junior High both sustained damage to expansion joints and the latter had damage to flooring.

Schools in the Jordan, Weber and Tooele school districts sustained minor and mostly cosmetic damage.

When the Magna quake occurred, in-person learning in Utah had been suspended in schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant schools were largely unoccupied and no injuries occurred.

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Salt Lake City School District, which embarked on an aggressive campaign to rebuild or retrofit its schools in the late 1990s, was largely unscathed.

John Crofts, Utah Division of Emergency Management earthquake program manager, said in a statement that the school inventory “is the first step towards increasing earthquake safety in our schools. We hope that this report will support the continued efforts to preserve life, property, and the environment, and to help Utah become an even stronger, more resilient state.”

Historically, Utah’s largest modern earthquakes have occurred in rural parts of the state, including an event in Hansel Valley in 1909 and Elsinore in 1921. Each event had an estimated 6.0-plus magnitude with no casualties or significant losses, “starkly contrasting with events like California’s Long Beach earthquake (1933), wherein more than 230 URM school buildings were destroyed, suffered major damage, or were judged unsafe to occupy,” the report states.

The report includes six recommendations:

  • Establish a target date for all unreinforced masonry schools to be repurposed, retrofitted or demolished.
  • Develop a statewide inventory of all vulnerable schools. The latest inventory does not include public charter, private or religious institutions.
  • Validate and finalize the unreinforced masonry inventory.
  • Provide funding for feasibility studies and mitigation.
  • Include under-reinforced masonry school buildings in mitigation initiatives.
  • Establish recommended retrofit standards for unreinforced masonry school buildings. 
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