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Rodent infestation forces Memphis school building to close for the semester

Shelby County Schools employees tour Kirby High School during repairs. District officials announced Thursday that the school would remain closed due to a pest infestation.
Shelby County Schools employees tour Kirby High School during repairs. District officials announced Thursday that the school would remain closed due to a pest infestation.
Shelby County Schools

Dozens of rats at Kirby High School in Memphis will keep the building closed the rest of the semester, district officials announced at a faculty meeting Thursday.

A rat’s nest found near the school has kept students out of school for five days so far and a full remedy would take about six to eight weeks. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district is looking at several places to relocate Kirby’s 800 students including an old K-Mart and Hickory Ridge Mall, about two miles away, to keep students together. Wherever they end up, transportation will be provided.

Hopson said officials decided to close the building for the whole semester rather than move students back in November or immediately after the work is completed.

The rat’s nest was discovered Aug. 24 as school staff cleaned up an old, large storage bin that had mulch between the school’s greenhouse and the building, Hopson said. That disturbance to the nest caused the rodents to “run inside the school.”

“This is not a scenario where people were not doing their job… This could have happened anywhere,” he said, adding about 80 rats have been killed so far. “This is truly an avoidable act of nature.”

The cleanup has cost the district about $70,000 so far and Hopson expects to spend “tens of thousands of dollars” more to close crevices that rats can squeeze through down to “the size of a quarter.”

The county health department had cleared the school previously in August and approved it to Tuesday, Hopson said, but a resurgence caused classes to be canceled again Thursday and Friday.

Aletha Brown, a parent at Kirby High, said the rat problem is not characteristic of the school’s cleanliness.

“I never saw any cleanliness issues. I believe this is an isolated incident,” she told Chalkbeat. “I’ve visited classrooms before and never observed things that could cause concern.”

Kay Johnson, whose daughter is a senior at Kirby, said she has gotten assignments from her teachers online.

“It’s not like it’s been idle time,” she said before a community meeting held at Hickory Ridge Middle School that drew 200 people. She didn’t have much preference on where students end up “as long as it’s instructional, I’m fine with that.”

Kirby High School is one of 166 schools across the state that scored the lowest on state tests so missing instructional time is especially detrimental, Hopson said. Principal Steevon Hunter and teachers are working on a plan to hit the ground running wherever they end up. Hopson also said he plans to make the state aware of the situation and the district’s plan to make up the time.

Helen Collins, a parent at Kirby High, said whatever the solution is, students should stay together.

“I think the focus should be finding a resolution to keeping our kids together under one roof,” she commented on board member Kevin Woods’ call on social media for suggestions. “To relocate them now especially during a time their programs are improving would kill the spirit of many.”

Danielle Thigpen said her daughter’s cheerleading team is still practicing and the school plans to have a pep rally to keep morale high.

The ordeal has been “traumatic” to teachers, said Tikeila Rucker, the president of United Education Association of Shelby County.

“I personally would not have been back after the first day I saw anything,” she told Chalkbeat.

Hopson had initially considered relocating students to South Side High School. The building previously was occupied by GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District that closed in May. But the school is 15 miles away and could prevent parents without cars from getting to Kirby if needed.

Hopson said he plans to present a full list of recommendations to board members Tuesday during a scheduled work session.

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