FORT KNOX, Ky. – The 2020/21 academic year for Fort Knox Community Schools turned out to be unlike any other year in its history.
While many businesses simply closed their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, school officials had to find ways to continue operating using new and innovative methods. According to Fort Knox Middle High School principal Lonnie Gilmore, summer offered them time to plan – something they didn’t have when the pandemic first hit.
“When we initially went to remote learning in March of the previous year, we were really trying to swim upstream,” said Gilmore, who has been in education 15 years. “We didn’t have time to plan.”
Gilmore said he, along with other administrators within the district, worked to come up with a long list of new safety policies and protocols before the students returned in the fall. Despite planning ahead, however, FKCS found adaptations had to constantly be made.
In-person instruction resumed in August 2020 for those who wished to do so, but faculty members suddenly had to switch back to remote learning at the end of November due to a spike in COVID-19. They remained virtual until Jan. 19, when the students were allowed to return physically back to school.
Then again in February, they flipped back to remote learning for two weeks due to staffing issues and severe weather. They were then able to finish out the rest of year in person.
Gilmore said the middle high school maintained about 80% of the student body population at school, while the remaining 20% chose to learn virtually for the year. He explained they all handled the constant ups and downs with incredible resiliency.
“There were a lot of protocols that we had to put in place, and the kids responded readily; there was no pushback whatsoever,” said Gilmore. “They’ve been wonderful.”
The ability to adapt could be seen at all age levels, according to Kingsolver Elementary principal Laura Gibson. One particular fear regarding the younger students was how they would handle masks.
“[The kids] have done so well,” said Gibson. “They [tolerated wearing masks] better than the adults. They are so resilient and so responsive to just being here in school.”
Gibson recalled one particularly difficult task going into the school year. The furniture layout of every room in the school would require adjusting for social distancing, and Gibson said assistant principal Jeff Pond took on the daunting task.
“He really headed that effort up. It was a huge undertaking,” said Gibson. “It was 25 learning studios, taking out all the soft surfaces, all carpets, all pillows, all soft toys like puppets, and then storing them somewhere. Then [he] was developing the protocols for walking, and putting up the decals. There was a lot going on, and he kind of took that on.”
The middle high school faced the same social distancing challenges as the other schools. However, Gilmore said one of their most difficult struggles concerned something no teenager expects to miss out on during their final years of school.
“I would say the biggest thing was probably losing sports,” said Gilmore. “A lot of the traditions; a lot of the culture surrounds our sporting seasons. That was really challenging, but our students were able to adapt.”
Gilmore said his students adapted in other ways as well, showing how creative they could be with figuring out how to develop new twists on old traditions – such as this year’s unique take on prom.
“Instead of a prom, they had a ‘morp,’” said Gilmore, explaining it was more like a student field day this year. “They came up with it, said ‘Can we do this instead?’ Then we got everything in place.
“I would put this group of students up against any class in their ability to persevere.”
In addition to commending the students, both principals highlighted the efforts of the parents. Gibson said they were very understanding about the new policy of not being able to come into the school like they normally would for meetings and visits with their children.
“Our parents have been so supportive this year. I can’t say that enough,” said Gibson. “It was just very different, and we just thank them for understanding that it was all in the name of safety.”
Although COVID-19 introduced many challenges throughout the year, one in particular brought the middle high school community together more than any other: the loss of one of their own. Guidance counselor Pam Harris lost her life after contracting COVID-19 at the beginning of the school year.
“Nothing can prepare you for losing a staff member,” said Gilmore. “She had a charismatic personality, and her legacy will continue to live on. We will forever cherish the work, the love for students, and the happiness and joy she brought to the school family.”
Like Gilmore, Gibson said in spite of the many hardships faced and continuous deviations from normalcy, the staff, parents and above-all the students, found ways to make the year a great experience:
“We’re really proud of the year we had.”