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Records lost, hundreds of displaced students: Kentucky floods have thrown schools into crisis mode

BUCKHORN, Ky. — Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass and state Education Department officials spent this week assessing the damage schools sustained after devastating floodwaters swept through eastern Kentucky last month. At least 1,100 students remain displaced from their homes in one school district alone. 

While most students across the country are kicking off the new school year, many in eastern Kentucky school districts are still figuring out where they will attend classes or when they’ll be able to start. More than 7,600 Kentucky students are still affected, and their start dates have been pushed into September, according to the state Education Department. 

“It was sobering to see the damage, just driving along the road and seeing refrigerators and couches where the floodwater receded,” said Toni Konz Tatman, the chief communications officer for the Education Department, who accompanied Glass. “All of the schools we visited took between 4 and 6 feet of water, so you could actually see the water line on the wall and all those floors that need to be ripped up. There’s a lot of work ahead.”

One place with a lot of work ahead is Buckhorn School, which teaches nearly 350 K-12 students in this small town and took almost 8 feet of water. 

Most of the school’s desks and chairs are piled out in the parking lot now as workers in white hazmat suits walk in and out dragging out debris and drywall. The bent metal siding of a double-wide trailer covers the outdoor lunch area, truck tires were found inside classrooms, and a telephone pole came to rest in the school’s hallway.

Employees of Servpro, a restoration company, carry debris and the contents of classrooms out of Buckhorn School in Buckhorn, Ky., on Aug. 19.Michael Swensen for NBC News
Contents of the classrooms at Buckhorn School are thrown away because of water damage and contamination on Aug. 19. Michael Swensen for NBC News

Despite its loss, Buckhorn School, which serves as a primary backbone of the community, is considered one of the lucky cases. It plans to move students to the A.B. Combs Elementary School building, which was abandoned after the district consolidated facilities.

But it will be at least a year until classes return to the school in Buckhorn, and in the meantime students will have to travel on buses for up to an hour to get to class.

“We’ve spoken to all our families and know they’re all OK, but we’re going to lose some of them to other schools — there’s no doubt about that,” Principal Tim Wooten said. “We just keep asking that they give us one year to get things back. That’s what we do here: Whatever it is, we make it work.”

Image: Tim Wooten, Principal of Buckhorn School, and Christie Stamper, Assistant Principal, at the school in Buckhorn, Ky., on Aug. 19, 2022.
“We just keep asking that they give us one year to get things back. That’s what we do here: Whatever it is, we make it work,” said Tim Wooten, the principal of Buckhorn School, pictured with Assistant Principal Christie Stamper at the school on Aug. 19.Michael Swensen for NBC News

Buckhorn isn’t the only town struggling to kick off the school year. Letcher County Public Schools, Jenkins Independent Schools, Knott County Schools and Leslie County Schools have all pushed back their start dates. Leslie will start next week, and Knott and Jenkins are targeting a mid-to-late September return, while Letcher still hasn’t set a return date. 

Letcher County, where more than 90% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, suffered massive devastation from the flooding last month. More than 1,250 homes were left uninhabitable, and around 1,100 students were displaced, according to the state Education Department. 

Aug. 8, 202201:39

Schools like those in Letcher County are trying not just to figure out where to have students attend class, but also how to get them there. Many of the roads and bridges are so damaged that some believe driving a heavy school bus on them could lead to an accident, which has caused some districts to consider using fleets of vans or large SUVs to pick up students. 

Denise Yonts, the superintendent of Letcher County Public Schools, said she has already spent $3 million — a huge sum for the district — on cleanup and hasn’t gotten an estimate back yet for the total restoration of the six buildings that were damaged: a middle school, two elementary schools, a gym and a vocational school. 

Yonts and other superintendents fear that they could fall into a spiral in which they would lose students, which would reduce their funding and ultimately hinder the schools’ recoveries. In small towns and communities in Kentucky, the schools are essential backbones and major employers. Their loss can be existential emotionally and financially.  

“The long-term effect and reality is the more kids we lose, the lower our budget is, and that’s going to affect us for years,” she said. “And so getting and having temporary housing here and having the infrastructure restored here is the only way that we’re going to be able to continue to help our kids and keep kids in school here.”

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