Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass and Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) Chair Lu S. Young were joined this week by two officials from the U.S. Department of Education on a two-day visit to seven eastern Kentucky school districts impacted by the July 2022 flooding.
On Aug. 30, Glass and Young visited Jenkins Independent, Knott County and Letcher County to see the damage caused by flooding firsthand and provide support to superintendents and staff.
“It really has been staggering. You can’t really capture in photographs or videos what these communities have gone through,” Glass said. “At the same time, it has been astounding to see the progress that has been made in just a few weeks.
“Our superintendents and school staff are working so hard to get their students back to school in person in some form. They want to serve the kids, they want to get their communities back together and they want some sort of normalcy to return. We see them working urgently to make that happen.”
Also visiting the schools were James Lane, senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona; Molly Budman, a representative from the U.S. Department of Education’s Disaster Recovery Unit; Joy Marshall from FEMA’s Region IV Recovery Division; Valoria Bradford Smith, a school liaison with the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency; and Toni Konz Tatman, the chief communications officer for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE).
Glass said of the 25 districts affected by the flooding, Breathitt County, Jenkins Independent, Knott County, Leslie County, Letcher County and Perry County schools were impacted the most, with significant damages to school operations or buildings.
Breathitt and Perry were finally able to start the 2022-2023 school year this week, with the exception of the Buckhorn and Robinson Elementary schools. The former A.B. Combs Elementary school building will be the temporary site for both schools and it is expected to open on Sept. 6.
Leslie County schools also are expected to open on Sept 6, while Jenkins Independent officials are hoping for Sept. 13. For Knott and Letcher county schools, the wait will be much longer.
Knott County Superintendent Brent Hoover said he is aiming for Sept. 19. Letcher County Superintendent Denise Yonts said she still doesn’t know when her schools will be able to reopen, but it will likely be late September or early October.
Some districts are still trying to figure out how to restructure bus routes or if they can use alternative transportation, as some roads remain impassable and the distance between schools can span more than 50 miles.
The General Assembly has allocated approximately $213 million for disaster relief in the short term, including $40 million to KDE for school cleanup, repair and wraparound services. The bill also includes up to 15 student attendance days to be waived and expands the use of remote instruction for students and emergency leave for educators in flood-impacted districts.
“Much more remains to be done to get these schools and districts whole again and KDE is looking forward to working with the legislature in January during the regular session to help ensure their needs are being met,” Glass said.
At least 39 people died in the floods, including an 8-year-old student from Knott County and her three younger siblings, as well as beloved school staff from Letcher County.
Letcher County Schools
Upon arrival at Whitesburg Middle School on Aug. 30, two Disaster Recovery Trailers packed with cleanup and restoration equipment from SERVPRO were stationed in the parking lot, along with numerous dumpsters filled with debris from the flooding. Hundreds of cafeteria tables from the middle school and nearby West Whitesburg Elementary were stacked up outside, as were other tables and chairs.
Inside the schools, Yonts showed the group how high the waters rose in areas throughout the buildings. She noted that the schools’ libraries and media centers were destroyed and most classrooms were damaged by 5 feet of water that rose from the North Fork of the Kentucky River, which flows directly behind the two schools.
In the gymnasium area of Whitesburg Middle, Yonts said that at least the first row of bleachers will need to be replaced.
The buildings’ tile floors were damaged by flooding. Yonts said that the tiles were removed, revealing concrete floors that will be polished. In addition to the first row of bleachers inside the middle school’s gymnasium, some of the wooden floors also will need to be restored or replaced.
Over at Fleming Neon Middle School, Yonts said the football field had 3-foot deep mud on the sidelines after the floodwaters receded. The gymnasium there also will need new floors.
“We have around 1,100 displaced kids in Letcher County,” Yonts said. “Six of our eight schools flooded, central office, … an alternative facility. It was very bad.”
But in the midst of so much darkness, Yonts said there has also been light.
“So many people have helped us face this devastation,: she said. “This flooding has revealed that humanity and generosity outweigh disasters.”
Jenkins Independent Schools
About 17 miles away from Whitesburg, Jenkins Independent Schools Superintendent Damian Johnson showed Glass, Young and the other visitors the damages sustained to Jenkins Elementary at the Burdine campus.
The school saw 3 feet of water on the outside of the building with 4 inches throughout the building. The campus lost its playground.
“The playground is a big concern of mine. We had an area for our preschoolers, as well as one for the older kids,” Johnson said. “As you can see, most of the playground equipment and the fencing around it is gone. We have no idea where it went.”
Johnson said the district got to work shortly after the floodwaters receded.
He discussed his experience pulling up floor tiles in the building. Similar to other schools in the area, he said the concrete floors will be polished instead of tiled.
Amanda Anderson, principal of Jenkins Elementary at the Burdine campus, discussed the upcoming academic year.
“I cannot wait to see my students again … I want to make sure they are okay,” she said. “ In a community that has faced so many challenges lately, school can be one thing that doesn’t change in these kids’ lives. They need the consistency that school provides, and we are excited to welcome them back to provide it.”
Knott County Schools
In Knott County, Superintendent Hoover and members of his leadership team discussed the progress the district is making toward rebuilding, repairing and reopening.
More than 60 students have been displaced, along with numerous staff members. He noted the loss of a young student and three of her siblings to the flood.
“This has been an incredibly traumatic time for our community,” he said. “The first few days were about finding our kids and our employees.”
A month later, Hoover said the “sticks have been picked up, the yards are being cleaned up and things look a lot better.”
“From an emotional standpoint, we are moving forward,” he said.
Karen Sandlin, food service and instructional coordinator with Knott County Schools, said the district had its first athletic event Aug. 26.
“We had more people there and more students there than we’ve had in a long time,” she said. “They are seeking some kind of normalcy.”
The Knott County team also has noticed something else among their students.
“So many of our kids have really been able to understand the meaning of service. They have been helping with debris removal, doing cleanup. They have also watched as people from all over the state and country have come here to help,” said Dustin Combs, director of federal programs. “They have had to kind of grow up overnight, and that is not a bad thing.”
“We are seeing good progress that’s happening in our districts like Letcher County, Jenkins Independent, Knott County, Hazard Independent, Perry County, Breathitt County and Jackson Independent, as they recover from the flood’s devastation,” said Glass. “The students and staff of eastern Kentucky are strong.”