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RINGGOLD, Ga. - Lisa Logan resumed teaching her high school science courses Monday in an unfamiliar setting with the knowledge two students wouldn't be back to roam the halls.
The April 27 tornado claimed two Ringgold High School juniors: Chelsea Black and Adam "Tex" Carroll. It also forced the closure of Ringgold High School and Ringgold Middle School, whose students began attending school at rival Heritage middle and high schools.
Ringgold High leaders and students say coming back to class this week reunites their at-school family and provides some support, though the whole ordeal has been trying.
"We're just going to get them through, and let them know that they've got us and we've got them," said Logan, who has taught in Catoosa County for 13 years. "Ringgold High School is a family. The students and the teachers really care about one another. It's good to be back with your family when it's so tough."
On Monday, Ringgold Middle School students merged with Heritage Middle School, and Ringgold High did the same with Heritage High.
Ringgold students and teachers occupy the afternoon part of the schedule, and Heritage students attend class in the morning. Both students will sit through intensive but abbreviated class schedules, school officials say.
There are just three weeks left in the school year, and Catoosa has asked for special state waivers for the seven days of missed classes, the shortened class time and a reprieve from springtime standardized tests.
The state superintendent will rush to place the waiver requests on Wednesday's state Board of Education agenda, said Justin Pauly, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. Waivers for missed days already have been approved for five North Georgia counties affected by the storms.
"WHERE IS CHELSEA?"
Even without power and other communication, students have stayed connected through the online social network Facebook.
Through those means, students and teachers have checked on friends after the storm, and it is also how many of them learned of casualties.
"I could keep up with what was happening by Facebook on my cell phone," Logan said. "There were many comments along the lines of 'where is Chelsea?' Many of us knew by 12:45 in the morning that Chelsea was missing ... and then sometime the next day we got confirmation that Tex, while in Apison, had been lost with his family."
On Monday, many students were reunited face to face for the first time since the storms.
"I saw students congregating in the parking lot, calling out each other's names as they passed on the bus," said Superintendent Denia Reese, whose son, Scott, attends Ringgold High. "Scott said there have been a lot of smiles today, so really it's just been a good time of being together."
Just in case, counselors are on hand and will continue to be ready throughout the rest of the school year, Reese said.
"Heritage staff is staying with us throughout the day - the nurses, counselors and social workers are all here - so we've doubled the support, and they are all shadowing the schedules of the students we lost," Reese said.
Both Black and Carroll had funerals before Monday, which many students attended.
Ringgold High School can be salvaged, Reese said, but it is uncertain if Ringgold Middle, which essentially lost its entire roof in the tornado, can be repaired.
"I don't have any experience in construction ... but I know that every day I have been impressed by what the disaster recovery team has been able to do there," Reese said. "Each day, the campus is looking more familiar. I believe miracles can happen."
There should be a formal decision on the school's fate by the end of the week, Reese said. Ringgold High should reopen by the start of next school year, she said.
Until then, Ringgold and Heritage students will make do. The two schools had a fierce rivalry since Heritage opened two years ago, so there were doubts when school leaders decided to merge campuses.
"I haven't met a Ringgold or Heritage student who hasn't already gotten past that rivalry," said Heritage Principal Ronnie Bradford. "Everyone is just looking for opportunities to give and to help, and a big challenge today was getting the [Heritage] kids to go home. They wanted to stay and help."
Getting through tough times is just part of Ringgold's nature, Ringgold Principal Sharon Vaughn said.
"Ringgold has tremendous strength, character and grit," Vaughn said. "In times like these, you depend on every ounce of strength you have, your faith, your friends and your family."
The route to the school is lined with downed trees, obliterated storefronts and homes. Much of the school-spirited blue that once dotted the town is gone, Vaughn said.
"Ringgold is all brown and gray now," she said. "But when I came in here, all the students were in blue. It was a real shot of adrenaline."
Students entered Heritage's front lobby with a large red and blue rug that combined school logos and colors. It was donated by a Heritage parent. There were also banners and other signs that welcomed Ringgold students to their temporary home.
Though it's a home away from home, students say they are eager to return to more familiar surroundings.
"I hope that we can get back to the school next year, because I would love to spend my senior year there," said Lauren Carpenter, a 17-year-old Ringgold junior who walked through the school Monday clutching books and a photocopied map of the building. "I feel kind of bad for those seniors who aren't going to get that now."
Not finishing at their own school is a downer, but Scott Reese said he thinks there are more important things.
"I don't think it's the building that makes the school," Reese said. "The people make the school. ... Even though we did lose two students, it's good to come back and see friends and know that many of us are all right."
Contact staff writer Adam Crisp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6323. Follow him online: www.facebook.com/crispreporter and www.twitter.com/adam_crisp.