Superintendents from eastern Kentucky school districts that were devastated by the July flooding shared some good news about their progress during a virtual meeting with leadership from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) on Sept. 1.
Currently, more than 7,600 students in eastern Kentucky are not back in school after the flooding, but four school districts (Jenkins Independent, Knott County, Leslie County and Letcher County) and two schools in Perry County will be starting later this month.
“We have set a start date for school – we still have some obstacles to overcome, but we are looking at starting school in Letcher County on Sept. 21,” said Superintendent Denise Yonts.
Yonts said that just as Thursday’s huddle call with KDE began, she received a text from one of the district’s partners who have been working on a sewer system issue she had previously worried would cause her schools to remain closed for at least another month.
“He (said) he had good news for me,” she said with a smile. “Things are improving.”
Knott County Schools will return on Sept. 19 after meetings with project managers and architects.
“We were probably 75% confident and now we are 90% confident barring any unforeseen circumstances. All the challenges have been removed or met,” said Superintendent Brent Hoover.
In Perry County, two of the district’s schools, Buckhorn and Robinson Elementary, were severely damaged by floodwaters. Students from both schools will be taught this year at the district’s A.B. Combs Elementary campus, a building that has been used primarily for sports since its closure in 2017. Students housed at A.B. Combs Elementary will start school on Sept. 6.
“We feel very confident we are ready to go,” said Superintendent Jonathan Jett. “We’re excited.”
Leslie County schools will go back on Sept. 6, and Jenkins Independent will go back on Sept. 12.
Many of the 25 districts affected by the flooding have large numbers of students and families displaced, but having them all back in school will help return a sense of normalcy the region has sought since the end of July.
“We are so thankful to get our students back because we’ve been able to better serve our families more by having them back in the building,” said Floyd County Superintendent Anna Shepherd.
Shepherd said there still are 31 displaced students and nine displaced staff in the district, but having them in schools allows for direct communication about resources and services available.
For schools that have returned, superintendents shared positive news about the start to the 2022-2023 school year, from plenty of donations to increased attendance of displaced students.
Wayne Sizemore, superintendent of Jackson Independent, expressed gratitude to the McCracken County district for a donation of desks, and Breathitt County Superintendent Phillip Watts thanked officials from Kentucky Emergency Management (KYEM).
Also during the meeting, KDE leadership provided an update about the $213 million in disaster relief funding allocated by the Kentucky General Assembly during a three-day special session that concluded Aug. 26. Districts are now able to request aid from the East Kentucky State Aid Funding for Emergencies (SAFE).
Through House Bill 1, $40 million was allocated directly to KDE for school cleanup, repair and wraparound services. The bill also includes up to 15 student attendance days to be waived through Jan. 20, 2023, and expands the use of remote instruction for students and emergency leave for educators.
School districts also may request assistance from three SAFE funding appropriations.
From two different sets of SAFE funding administered by Department of Military Affairs’ Division of Emergency Management, districts may request reimbursement for services, personnel and equipment; financial support to assist with building and tangible property replacement; replacement or renovation of publicly owned buildings; and strained fiscal liquidity.
“Many thanks to the General Assembly and to the governor and all of the folks that worked to try to put together the assistance to really support districts,” said KDE Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney.
Kinney said the SAFE funding administered by KDE will provide for wraparound services for school children and their families, which could include afterschool tutoring or mental health counseling, transportation costs for displaced students and school repairs. KDE will provide districts with ideas for potential requests in the coming days.
“I know that in our visits, some of you that weren’t in school yet, you were thinking about what are some ways you could keep your community connected to each other,” said Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass “ … This could be an opportunity for you to fund some other things, some more of the reasons to get the community connected and keep it cohesive during this time when you are still not able to have school open.”
Districts can access the department’s SAFE fund application on KDE’s State Grants webpage.
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman also joined the meeting to talk about the 2022 special session.
“I really hope that, and I believe that, for the most part, your voices were heard. And we got a good piece of legislation through in a special session that can tide us over until the regular session, when more will be needed and more should be done,” she said.
KDE, USED Visit Eastern Kentucky Districts
Glass and Kentucky Board of Education Chair Lu S. Young were joined by officials from the U.S. Department of Education (USED), KYEM and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a two-day visit Aug. 30-31 to seven eastern Kentucky school districts impacted by the July 2022 flooding.
On Aug. 30, the team visited Jenkins Independent, Knott County and Letcher County to see the damage caused by flooding firsthand, and to provide support to superintendents and staff. On Aug. 31, the team visited Breathitt County, Hazard Independent Schools, Jackson Independent and Perry County Schools.
Glass said his biggest takeaway is making sure people around Kentucky and the nation know the recovery for these communities is still ongoing.
“The photographs and videos people have seen do not do justice to the level of damage in your communities,” he said. “In every community we saw, the amount of progress that we’ve seen toward restoring school services has also been extraordinary. Just in a few weeks to see how far you’ve come has been amazing.”
KYEM School Liaison Valoria Smith, who also joined KDE officials for the visits, took a moment to thank the superintendents.
“I became vested in this whole community more than I ever have,” she said. “I’m invested in your success. I’m invested in your recovery and to really, really dig in to make sure that I do all that I can to make it happen.”
KDE has been holding weekly virtual huddles with superintendents of the affected districts since the disaster to provide assistance. The next superintendents’ huddle with KDE will take place on Sept. 8.