Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass and Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) Chair Lu S. Young visited several western Kentucky school districts on March 1 and 2 that were impacted by the Dec. 2021 tornados.
Glass received a warm welcome from students and staff at Earlington Elementary (Hopkins County), where stories were shared about the days after the storms and the resiliency that followed. Earlington Elementary Principal Julie Vaughn, who is in her first year in the role, said after the school first addressed the needs of its students and families, they then turned to help the whole community.
The school became a communitywide distribution center in the county, distributing donated clothing, food and hygiene and other products. Vaughn described how the community came together to show strength in the face of tragedy and how they have recovered so far.
“It started off very simple and small scale, and then grew,” said Vaughn. “We had schedules where our different administrators would come and help lead, we utilized our sports teams and student groups, and then the community started pouring in with donations.”
District students and staff helped organize a massive amount of donations into a “department store,” said Hopkins County Superintendent Amy Smith, organizing items by type and size. A local marketplace donated shopping carts so community members could collect everything they needed.
“It gave them some sense of normalcy,” said Smith. “We had to comfort and listen and ensure them we’re here to help and support.”
One student from Hopkins County Central High School shared her experience helping community members shop for what they needed and how appreciative she felt during the process.
“It really opened my mind that I need to be grateful for a lot more than what I have right now because I might have lost power that night, but I definitely did not lose my house like others did,” she said.
While all the items that were donated have been distributed and school is back in session, Smith said she remains grateful for the community-wide efforts to help each other during the days and weeks following the storms.
“In the midst of so much negativity that we’ve experienced and in the midst of tragedy, this truly was very heartwarming, and it brought that unity back,” said Smith.
Hopkins County School District had 45 students and 26 staff members that either had a total loss or partial loss of their home.
A student from Earlington Elementary said one of the things he will remember most from the storms is how his school and community helped each other bounce back after the tragedy.
“It started in the gym with eight tables, eight kids who had lost their homes, and then all of a sudden it turned into this big store for the whole community,” he said.
Smith said the recovery effort also gave district staff the opportunity to connect with staff from other schools.
“It truly was a Team Hopkins effort,” said Smith.
Dawson Springs Independent Superintendent Leonard Whalen said Dawson Springs High School was also used as a community distribution center for donations that poured in.
Dawson Springs had a larger number of students, staff and families displaced by the tornado than many area of Western Kentucky. Because of that, some students did not immediately return to school when it was set to start in early January. Teachers and school staff, meanwhile, returned ahead of time to help sort and clear out the leftover donations that filled classrooms and hallways.
Glass and Young joined Whalen on a drive to survey the remaining damage from the tornadoes. Whalen said many students and staff experienced a total or partial loss of their homes and were sheltered at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park afterward.
KBE Member Holly Bloodworth joined Glass during his visit to Mayfield/Graves County, another community that was heavily affected by the tornadoes. Mayfield Independent Superintendent Joe Henderson and Graves County Superintendent Matthew Madding described how Mayfield High School acted as shelter for those displaced and injured.
Some victims with injuries not deemed serious enough for the hospital were sent to Mayfield High School and sheltered in the school’s gymnasium until the next morning. Families that were completely displaced from their homes were transferred to Kenlake State Resort Park. Henderson said there are about four families from his district that still are sheltering at the park, but he believes they will be able to transfer out soon to other locations within the county.
Henderson and Madding said the relocation of students has put a strain on school transportation, not only because of the loss of buses in the storm, but also because of the lack of housing within the community. Displaced families have been relocated to surrounding communities, making the longer commute difficult.
However, the superintendents said working together to adjust the bus routes for both districts has worked well, and limited the number of students having to transfer to other school districts. They said they will continue to work together to do what is best for students and families.
Henderson also said cleanup and recovery in the community has made a lot of progress, and school officials will continue to work with community members and city and state representatives to do whatever they can to help heal their community in the years to come.
Following the visits, Glass said he was “inspired by the stories of hope and perseverance from our Kentucky school districts following the December storms.”
“We will continue to support the impacted districts in their recovery efforts. At KDE, we have to stay engaged for the long haul along with the KBE to provide these districts with support.”
Glass and Bloodworth also traveled throughout Murray and Calloway County visiting schools. This was the first time Glass had been able to visit the districts since beginning his role as education commissioner during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students and staff in every school remarked how glad they were to return to as much normalcy as possible following the pandemic. Although many schools experienced learning disruptions during the pandemic, they said they still expect to see learning gains from their students in the coming years.
The resilient spirit of students and schools and the desire to keep learning was evident. Glass joined Murray Elementary (Murray Independent) students in their music class, where they were learning how to keep rhythm. At Southwest Calloway Elementary (Calloway County), he received a tour from the school’s student council and participated in a read-aloud for kindergartners with the book “Chrysanthemum” for Read Across America Day.
“We are seeing good progress that’s happening in our districts like Murray, Mayfield, Dawson Springs and Hopkins County, as they recover from not just the pandemic, but the terrible tornado devastation,” said Glass. “The students’ strength is inspiring, and this is a great example of the commitment of our teachers to helping students reach their goals.”
Glass also visited Murray State University, where he spoke to students participating in a transition course within the school’s education program. The course is designed for new or freshman students to assist them with the transition to college life and the curriculum in their chosen program.
Glass answered questions from the students about Kentucky’s education system and encouraged them to continue to pursue their passion for teaching.
At the conclusion of the two-day visit to western Kentucky, Glass said he is looking forward to visiting more schools across the state.
“I have been on the job for a year and a half, and most of that time has been spent supporting our schools and districts as we have navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
“Now that restrictions are easing and we seem to have gotten past the worst part, I want to spend more time in our classrooms. We have a lot of work to do to catch up from all the disruption, but it’s so important for me to see our students, teachers and community members so they know I am here to support them.”