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‘Our rainbow after the storm’: Students in flood-hit eastern Kentucky finally return to school

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Jess Clark
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Students, teachers, and parents returned to Hindman Elementary in Knott County for the first day of school.

Morning fog hovered in the mountains above Hindman Elementary as buses arrived Monday. After more than a month of delay, it was finally the first day back for Knott County Schools.

A kindergartner in a ponytail took small steps toward the entrance with her mother. There were tear streaks on her cheeks, but she tried a smile.

“Hi Carly!” one teacher said, greeting her at the door. “You’re a big girl now! No more preschool!”

Less than two months ago, this school was filled with several feet of water. Hindman Elementary was one of three district buildings inundated when deadly flash floods swept through the region in late July. Many districts in eastern Kentucky had to delay the start of school. But students in hard-hit Knott and Letcher Counties waited the longest.

This third week of September, these school communities are finally back together, grappling with loss, and finding hope in each other.

Hindman Elementary ‘with no tiles’

Inside Hindman Elementary, festive back-to-school signs covered the walls. Crepe paper decorations hung from the ceilings in hallways. But the floors were bare concrete. Workers had to strip out the old green and gold tiles because they were damaged in the flood.

“It’s like Hindman Elementary, just with no tiles,” Hindman Elementary principal Brandi Sims said.

Other than the stark concrete floor, Sims said Monday felt like a typical first day, and she’s glad of it.

“Being back here with the kids is the most normal feeling we’ve had,” Sims said. “This is what we’ve been looking forward to.”

Getting this school building ready for students in just seven weeks was a monumental task. In addition to work on the floors, the building and its HVAC had to be cleaned, the sewer system had to be repaired, and teachers had to restock their classrooms with all new supplies.

Pre-K teacher Natasha Moore lost her whole library of books, along with rugs, stuffed animals and costumes for the dramatic play area. But thanks to donors, on Monday her room was back to its former glory.

“This will be our rainbow after the storm,” she said.

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Jess Clark
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A kindergarten teacher leads her class in “Wheels on the bus” on the first day of school at Hindman Elementary. The floors are bare concrete because the tiles were damaged in July’s flooding.

Chatter filled the cafeteria during breakfast as students caught up with each other. Many said they were grateful to see friends again. But it wasn’t hard to find an anxious face.

Moore called for the school nurse when a student found her in the breakfast line, short of breath and panicked.

“He says, ‘I can’t speak,’” Moore called down the hallway to the nurse.

“It’s probably just first-day jitters,” the nurse said, hurrying up the hall to see her patient.

Later, Moore confirmed that the student was OK after he got some help from the nurse.

“He was one that lost everything,” she explained.

Hundreds of students across the district lost their homes, and are staying with family, or in trailers at campsites. Some students lost family members and friends. Forty people have been confirmed dead as a result of the flooding and cleanup, and many of them were in Knott County.

Moore said she ordered new social-emotional learning kits for her Pre-K class to help her students identify their feelings.

“They need it now more than ever,” Moore said.

‘They’re the ones picking us up’

At Emmalena Elementary School in Knott County, special education teacher Kimberly Mosley was in her office, going through stacks of student records.

“Right now we’re in the process of getting folders for the kids that have left us and had to go to other schools because they’ve been relocated,” she said.

At least five students have gone to other districts. But Mosley believes that number may grow as families figure out whether they want to rebuild or move on.

Then there are the records belonging to Maddison Noble, who would have been in second grade this year at Emmalena. She died with her three younger siblings in the flood.

Mosley can’t bear to look at the file.

“I just put it in the bottom drawer, and that’s where it’ll stay,” Mosley said, holding back tears.

The district has mental health practitioners on standby for students and staff who need to talk about the trauma they’ve been through. But so far, Mosely said, kids have just been excited to be back. They’re not talking yet about the flood.

“We assumed they were gonna come in and fall apart — and they’re the ones picking us up,” she said.

Fourth-grader Brantley Roark lost his home in the flood, and is living with his grandmother now. He’s glad to be back in the classroom.

“I feel good coming back to school because you get to see your friends again,” he said in between ice-breaker activities with his classmates.

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Jess Clark
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Seventh grade student Bailey Sloane says she’s glad to be back in school, where she’s confident she’ll excel. She lost her home in the flood and has been living with her grandmother.

Seventh-grader Bailey Sloane’s home was also flooded. Her mother and stepfather are living in a trailer at a campsite about 20 minutes from the school. But Sloane wouldn’t have her own space there, nor internet access. So she’s staying with her grandmother for now.

“I’ve always been a momma’s girl. So it’s hurt a lot,” she said.

Sloane said she has always excelled in academics, and it feels good to be back at Emmalena Elementary, which serves grades K-8.

“I hope that it goes, like, smooth, and I keep my grades up. But I’m always really good about that. And I always make sure that my homework is done first. So I’m pretty confident about it,” she said.

‘A while before the learning starts’

Outside on the playground Monday afternoon, teacher Heather Hammond supervised her second-graders during their recess. The sun had burned the fog off the mountains. Students were laughing and running in and out of the jungle gym and warning each other about a wasp nest they found near the slide.

Like many teachers in Knott County, Hammond’s focus these first few weeks will be on her students’ social-emotional needs, rather than academics.

“When I prayed last night, and when I prayed this morning, it was for them to be able to see Jesus pouring out of me into them because of what they went through this summer,” Hammond said.

“I just want them to know they’re loved. And it may be a while before the learning starts, but they’ve just been through so much to be so little.”

Hammond doesn’t know yet what her students have seen and been through, but when they’re ready to talk about it, she’ll be ready to listen.

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