FRANKFORT, Ky. (LEX 18) — At least 46 school staff members have died from COVID-19 in Kentucky.
The state doesn't officially keep track officially of the exact number. However, KY 120 United AFT, a union for educators and school personnel has.
"When school started, we started hearing stories from members from all over the state, that different people, you know, 'I heard this custodian passed away and we lost this bus driver', and it started really hitting home to us that every single day, we were all receiving messages and being sent news stories about different people," said union member Christina Trosper.
So they took it upon themselves to keep track. Now every time educational personnel dies of COVID, they update the public on their Facebook page.
"The list was started because it simply had to be documented. I've been in school either as a student or a teacher for 35 years," said Jeni Ward Bolander. "In that time, I can remember two active education personnel dying. Having 46 deaths we know of from COVID since March 2020 is huge and impactful."
"Schools are the largest employer in most counties in our state, so these are people who touch everyone's lives in their community just simply by where they work. It is incredibly sad to add each update, they were community members, people you go to church with, people you see at the grocery, people who helped our kids learn to read, fed them meals, and got them safely to and from school. They deserve to be remembered, and we owe it to them to do everything we can to make sure there isn't one more name added," Bolander continued.
Names were left off on purpose because they did not want to inadvertently re-traumatize any families who did not want their loved one's personal information released. Trosper says all the death has been traumatic.
"Many of us are, spend our days crying during planning periods or we cry after work. I mean it's taken a toll on all of us now," said Trosper. "We're all having the same stories, and are all experiencing the same anxieties, the same stressors, and it's been really difficult. I think most teachers would tell you that this year, we thought last year was bad, but this year is quite possibly, much worse than what we experienced last year."
The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has noticed the increase in school-related deaths as well.
"I have cried, like many of our districts and like many of our educators. I have spent many of these past weeks in tears. In a lot of emotion. Many of us here at the Department of Education, we've put out a lot of guidance, trying to prevent things like this from happening, doing the best that we can, but it's extremely sad," said Chief Communications Officer Toni Konz Tatman.
Tatman also makes a tribute post on her social media every time they lose someone.
"When I see them, I want to do each one justice. You know, want them to be remembered for what they did for our children, for our public-school students in this state. Because they've been so special to those communities and to our schools," said Tatman.
What can be done?
The Kentucky Department of Education is limited in what powers they have. However, they've advised all districts to mandate masks and encourage vaccinations.
"Just people being vaccinated, increasing the number of vaccinations in the state. When vaccinations become available for our children under the age of 12. I think pushing vaccinations for that will be extremely important. And then also just awareness to those people who have not yet received the vaccination on why the vaccines are so important," said Tatman.
The department recently announced that use up to $8.8 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to provide reimbursements to districts that have rewarded and acknowledged the time, energy, and effort staff members took to get vaccinated. All full and part-time employees of public school districts are eligible for a one-time vaccination incentive payment of $100 after being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
For Trosper, the solution starts with being more vocal about what's going on.
"We are brothers and sisters within our unions, we are caretakers of our communities. We are the canaries in the coal mines and we are going to scream as loud as we can about what we're seeing, what we're feeling, what we are going through what our students are going through, and hopefully, at some point, the majority party in Frankfort will begin to listen to people as we are seeing more and more funerals, or we're seeing more and more death, we're seeing more and more students being traumatized by losing those people in their schools that they depend on and have relationships with. It's past time for us to get past politics and think about what's for the greater good, and our communities," said Trosper.