Two weeks ago, our eastern Kentucky community was devastated by flash flooding. Perry County suffered damage that was both unprecedented and shocking. No loss is greater than the loss of a family member, especially those taken far too early. Our thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with those who suffered the greatest loss.
Additionally, hundreds of families in Perry County were displaced. They lost their homes and their belongings, unsure about what their next move needed to be.
The amazing people I work with in the Perry County schools proved, once again, that schools are the heart of our communities.
Our district quickly moved to meet the immediate needs of our students, their families and the region as a whole. What began as a small plan to get food out to our students turned East Perry Elementary School into a regional distribution center for flood relief.
Millions of dollars in water, food, clothing, supplies and equipment arrived at East Perry Elementary, which was redistributed throughout Perry County and the region. We also partnered with World Central Kitchen to provide hot meals throughout our county and beyond. In a single day, we had almost 600 volunteers showing up to help – and not just Perry Countians – but people from all over the state.
The distribution center at East Perry ran for nine days. However, we knew from the beginning that it needed to shift to a place that could provide a long-term solution to give us time to get East Perry ready for the upcoming school year.
Additionally, our district utilized West Perry Elementary as an emergency shelter for anyone displaced by the flooding. Our buildings are made for educating students, however, the staff at West Perry, along with volunteers, quickly transitioned the building to accommodate over 100 people who needed a place to go. We were able to provide a safe place for people to rest, get food, medical care and much-needed supplies.
West Perry Elementary also provided shower trailers for the community. This was made possible through a partnership with faith-based organizations and others.
The list of people who need to be thanked is exhaustive. But most importantly, I want to say thank you to all those who worked tirelessly at East and West Perry, as well as throughout our community, to meet the needs of our people.
As everyone is aware, the buildings of Robinson Elementary and Buckhorn School suffered extensive flood damage. Flood waters reached approximately 8 feet in Robinson Elementary, which has 265 students. At Buckhorn, a K-12 school with 315 students, had flood waters up to 6 feet.
While you may have seen pictures of the flood damage through media,, the reality of seeing the damage in person is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Over the last few days, we have had adjusters, engineers and architects in both schools assessing the damage.
There is evident structural damage in both buildings. The primary hallway in Robinson Elementary is collapsed and Buckhorn has some interior walls with structural damage. The damage is so significant that neither facility will be suitable for occupancy for some time. Knowing this, the Perry County Board of Education voted to change the 2022-2023 school calendar, with the opening day for students now scheduled for Aug. 29.
This will be the third year in a row where there has been major disruptions for our students, staff and families. A month ago, we were planning back to school events to kick off what we hoped would be a far more normal year. With everything our families, our teachers and our staff have been through with the pandemic, and now this, it is vitally important we try to maintain as much normalcy as possible. This is especially important for our children.
However, this opening day will be a lot different for Robinson Elementary and Buckhorn students and staff members. Our principals have been in communication with staff and students about the upcoming school year and the common theme among both communities has been “keep us together.”
I have worked with Gov. Andy Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, Commissioner of Education Jason Glass and our Perry County board members, as well as other state and local officials to do just that. We have a facility that can allow both schools to stay together.
The former A.B. Combs Elementary school building will be the temporary site for Buckhorn School and Robinson Elementary. Each school will occupy separate wings of the building, allowing us to keep all of the children in Robinson and Buckhorn together to minimize disruptions for our students, who already have faced so many changes recently.
The school – which currently is used for Perry County Central Volleyball, JROTC, Wrestling and Archery – needs some renovations. On Aug. 10, we began assuring the safety of the building, making sure it is code compliant, making HVAC repairs and providing maintenance for other systems to have the building ready for the start of school on Aug. 29. I will stay in communication with staff, students and parents about progress being made.
I understand this is less than ideal, but I’m thankful we have a facility that allows our displaced students and staff to come back to school for the 2022-2023 year. This is the first step in keeping these school families together. This will be so important as we recover from this devastation.
As we heard from our Perry County families, we must stay together.
Jonathan Jett is superintendent of Perry County Schools.