WEST LIBERTY — Morgan County reached another milepost on the road to recovery Monday as 1,900 public school students returned to classes for the first time since the March 2 tornado ravaged the community.
The start of classes was especially triumphant for the staff and students of West Liberty Elementary School. Their school was destroyed, so they resumed their studies in the manufacturing and warehouse space formerly occupied by Boneal Inc.
"They seem to be adjusting well," school nurse Sandy McClure said as she surveyed the students eating lunch in the makeshift cafeteria.
Principal Vickie Oldfield said things went smoothly as students arrived Monday morning, and that most seemed glad to be back in class and have more stability in their lives after the storms.
"At first, I thought it would take us a week to get a routine going," Oldfield said. "Now I'm going to say three days. It isn't like home yet, but we're getting there, hopefully sooner rather than later."
Attendance was high in all the district's schools, ranging from 94 percent at Morgan County High to 99 percent at Morgan Central Elementary, Superintendent Deatrah Barnett said.
"That tells me that kids were ready to get back to school, and we love it," she said.
Reopening the schools was an essential part of moving forward, Barnett said.
"Research tells us that in order to heal, people need to be together," she said. "And we knew that we needed to get our kids back together. It gives them a sense of security. They finally see their friends. They know their friends are OK now. They can move on."
Classes also reopened Monday in Magoffin County, where the storms left both the Herald Whitaker Middle School and the Salyersville Grade School too damaged to be used. Instead, middle school students reported to the county high school Monday morning, and Salyersville Grade School students attended class in some old buildings that the Magoffin Public Schools own. Some modular units are being set up for extra space.
"It went more smoothly than I expected it would, so I'm pleased," Magoffin Superintendent Joe Hunley said. "A lot of people have put in some long hours to make it work."
The creation of a temporary school for West Liberty Elementary students is perhaps the most remarkable story in Monday's reopenings. With West Liberty Elementary School condemned after the March 2 tornado, the old Boneal building, on a hill above town, was the only place that could accommodate the kids.
A small army of people — architects, engineers and volunteers from a Virginia group called "God's Pit Crew" — pitched in and converted the old building into a school in less than a week.
Chuck Trimble, an architect with Lexington's Murphy + Graves Architects, said workers took measurements of the building on March 5, the Monday after the tornado, and then called architect Tim Murphy in Lexington. Murphy turned the measurements into working drawings, which were ready by noon that day. Construction started the next morning.
Trimble, a Morgan County native who attended the old West Liberty Elementary School, said that when workers started, they "weren't sure what we were going to do, but we were going to do something for the kids."
David Higgins, an engineer with Lexington's CMTA Consulting Engineers, said that after about two days of work, "it just came to me, that this thing actually had a chance of happening."
Acting on sudden inspiration, Higgins stuck a piece of cardboard on the wall and wrote on it: "Welcome to The Miracle on the Hill." The name stuck and became a watchword for the entire project.
"It's special what went on up there," Higgins said Monday.
West Liberty fifth-grade teacher Michelle McCarty said she allowed her students to talk about what they went through in the tornado for the first 90 minutes of class.
"We just kind of talked about the tornado and what their feelings and thoughts were about it," McCarty said. "They told about what they experienced and whether they were afraid."
The 580 students at Morgan County High School were asked to fill out a survey that asked whether they were displaced from their permanent home, what their concerns were, whether they would like private counseling, and whether anyone in their family needs assistance with food or clothing.
High school principal Joe Gamble said about 10 students requested counseling, which was available Monday.
Students at West Liberty Elementary appeared to be upbeat about getting back to class. Austin Holbrook, 11, a fifth-grader, said he thought the pizza, french fries, corn and peaches were "better than normal" fare at lunch.
The 580 students at West Liberty Elementary were fed from a mobile kitchen, a truck trailer, that was made available by Mercy Chefs, a faith-based disaster-relief agency. School employees used the trailer's double convection ovens, stove, freezer and sinks to prepare lunch and a sausage-biscuit breakfast.
"It's challenging," head cook Linda Adkins said. "You just have to make up your mind that you're going to do it."
Kitchen employee Hope Childers said she enjoyed cooking in the trailer because it reminded her of camping.
Gov. Steve Beshear took a walking tour through the classrooms, library and the temporary school district central offices under construction in the rear of the building.
"This is a pretty neat building, isn't it?" Beshear asked one class.
"Hel-lo gov-er-nor," chimed one class in unison as Beshear entered.
"It is just an amazing feat by this community to have these kids back here," Beshear said.
The schools, however, have a long wait ahead. West Liberty students will have to use the old Boneal building for at least a year until a new school is built, officials said. And Hunley, the Magoffin superintendent, said his students will be in temporary quarters that long or longer.
"Can we live with it? We have to," Hunley said. "This is what we're left with, and we have to make it work."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305Twitter: @hlpublicsafety.