Schools were not spared by the floods in eastern Kentucky in late July.
Students, parents, and teachers from all 14 flood-affected counties are reeling from the loss, and many fear these predominantly rural communities will forever be changed as school authorities make tough decisions on how and where to rebuild the schools that were lost.
Here’s what we know about two flooded school districts and what the recovery may look like for schools and students alike.
The Loss: Perry and Letcher Counties
In Perry County, two of the county’s nine schools were irreparably destroyed during the floods. Community members fear that students from these two schools may be forced to permanently switch to other school districts, which locals say would be a deep loss to Perry County School District.
“[Robinson Elementary School] is in a community that has had that school there for a really, really long time,” said Bailey Richards, downtown coordinator for the nearby town of Hazard, Kentucky. “It’s a very tight-knit community and the teachers are devastated that the school is not going to be there.”
The other school lost in Perry County is Buckhorn School, the only K-12 education facility in the area. Until a more permanent solution is found, students from both Robinson Elementary School and Buckhorn School will be sent to A.B. Combs Elementary School, in Combs, Kentucky.
“To lose those two schools is really, really hard,” Richards said. “We’ve seen a lot of consolidation of schools across the region anyway, and that’s always heartbreaking to lose your community school.”
According to a Facebook post from James Fugate, principal of Robinson Elementary School, the school bus schedule will operate as normal but take students to A.B. Combs Elementary School instead of Robinson. The same goes for Buckhorn School, according to a WYMT news report.
Transportation won’t be as smooth in adjoining Letcher County, where the school district lost the majority of its school buses to the floods. Barren County School District is donating three buses to Letcher County, but school officials are asking the community to fill the transportation gap as they look for ways to get students to school.
Three of Letcher County’s 10 schools were under eight feet of water from the floods, and two Letcher County school staff members died.
“Our community as a whole is devastated,” said Letcher County Superintendent Denise Yonts in a Kentucky Department of Education press release.
No school start date has been released for Letcher County. Schools in Perry County begin August 29, two weeks later than what was previously scheduled. A full list of Kentucky school start dates can be found here.
How Students Can Recover
With school start dates postponed, Perry and Letcher County officials are working to piece together the puzzle of how to create a semi-normal school year for students who, along with the residual effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, are now also recovering from a natural disaster that has displaced students during a pivotal developmental period.
“Displacement usually means loss of predictability, safety, and security and disrupts a child’s sense of normalcy,” said Lou Ann Tanner Jones, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Missouri and member of the National Center for Rural School Mental Health, in an email to the Daily Yonder. “These basic needs are foundational, universal needs in young lives.”
Reconnecting with caregivers after a disaster and reestablishing school, family, and community routines is vital in helping students return to a sense of normalcy, Tanner Jones said. In places like Letcher and Perry counties, where establishing these routines may take longer, showing children how other areas have recovered from disaster can provide reassurance that it can happen at home too.
Superintendents from western Kentucky who were affected by tornados in December of 2021 have offered advice to schools rebuilding after the floods.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be important for you to get back in school, but the human element is the biggest piece,” said Leonard Whalen, superintendent of Dawson Springs Independent Schools in Hopkins County, in a press release. “You’ve got so many people that are hurting in your community, try to make sure their immediate need is met.”
While community members try to ensure these needs are met, Tanner Jones at the University of Missouri said adults should watch childrens’ behavior in the months after the disaster. Most children will be OK after, but if they do not show signs of returning to typical behavior four to five weeks after the disaster, adults should consider checking in with a mental health professional for assistance with the child.
What Will Help Schools in Kentucky?
For every community affected by floods, monetary donations go the furthest to help people rebuild, according to previous reporting from the Daily Yonder. The Kentucky governor has established a relief fund for eastern Kentuckians, and the organization Mutual Aid Disaster Relief has established their own fund to support people affected. A full list of places to support can be found here.
For schools specifically, besides donations, officials have said waiving instructional time requirements and creating long-term funding stability will best help schools recover, according to reporting from the Courier Journal.
While eastern Kentucky communities are still in the immediate response phase of recovery, in western Kentucky, school superintendents have been advocating for state funding to fill the gap school budgets are expected to see in the next several years as they lose money from property tax revenue due to the December 2021 tornadoes that destroyed 15,000 structures.
Eastern Kentucky will likely come across a similar problem, which is why school officials are already thinking about ways to obtain long-term funding stability.
For students, mental health experts say the best thing to do is provide the resources and support they need to bounce back from the trauma of a disaster, which often looks like providing emotional support, and if possible, stability within their community.
“It is very important to remember that most students are innately resilient and, given time and appropriate support, most recover well from a traumatic experience,” Tanner Jones said.