Small cities in their own right, school districts cannot educate children without a variety of professionals working together to keep a building operating.
Each school needs its teachers and counselors, its custodians, coaches, bus drivers and monitors, its cafeteria workers, attendance clerks and so much more.
Across Kentucky, schools have suffered the loss of at least 30 employees due to the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, though there are at least 30 more whose cause of death could not be confirmed by The Courier Journal.
They were the ones who advised against bullying and cheered touchdowns from the sidelines. They made sure students who arrived hungry had enough sustenance to make it through their classes and when schools shuttered, they turned their operations mobile.
Tasked with preparing the next generation — the pandemic proved to be the most trying time in their profession. Some fell victim very short into it, when they were delivering meals to students stuck at home. Others spent weeks in intensive care.
They all left behind a school community of coworkers and children who had grown accustomed to seeing them about 180 days out of the year.
This is what we know about their work, their passion and their impact.
Editor’s Note: The Courier Journal was able to confirm the deaths of school employees due to COVID-19 through public officials and families. Unfortunately, we were not able to confirm the cause of death for all school employees who have died during the pandemic. If you would like for your loved one to be added to this story, please email [email protected]
Grant County Schools
David Jones, 75, is the first known Kentucky school employee to die due to COVID-19 on April 1, 2020.
Prior to serving as a bus monitor for the Grant County school district, Jones owned and ran his own business in Williamstown, according to his obituary.
He and his wife were married for more than 50 years. He loved bowling, playing pool and watching westerns.
In addition to his wife, he left behind three children and three grandchildren.
Fayette County Public Schools
When schools were first closed at the start of the pandemic, the Fayette school district shifted bus drivers’ role from transporting students to taking them meals.
Eugenia Weathers, who’d been a member of the system’s transportation team for 17 years, was one of the employees who ensured students didn’t go hungry.
Just over a month into the closure, Weathers, 56, died due to COVID-19 on April 4, 2020.
“Eugenia was one of our relief drivers, so by the nature of her work, she was very flexible and approached every situation with a positive attitude,” said Marcus Dobbs, transportation director for the district. “She had a great disposition and personality, a wonderful sense of humor, and the rare ability to find joy in everyday life.”
At the time of her death, 27 of the district’s staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 19 were in the transportation department.
Jo Ann Banks
Grant County Schools
Jo Ann Banks, 58, died April 19, 2020 — the second of three employees of the Grant County Schools’ transportation department to die due to COVID-19 in less than two months.
She was a bus monitor for the district and loved to go boating, camping and riding her motorcycle, according to her obituary.
“Her warm and welcoming smile coupled with her charming personality caused her to be endeared by everyone that knew her,” the obituary says.
Banks was survived by her husband of 38 years, three children and three grandchildren.
Grant County Schools
Garylin Stone was the third transportation department employee for the Grant County district to die due to COVID-19 within the first two months of schools being closed.
“Each person would do anything to protect the children on their bus,” Transportation Director Scott Shipp said of the three employees. “They loved the kids and the kids loved them. They were very loyal to our district and good employees.”
Stone became a bus driver for the district in 2006 after retiring as an engineer for Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Nicknamed “Stoney,” he was 71 years old when he died May 20, 2020 — after spending more than a month in the hospital, his neighbor and coworker Brad Schadler said.
“Everyone loved him,” Schadler said. “The kids loved him and the schools loved him. He was dependable and showed up for work every day. He was always friendly, spoke to anybody and everybody and if a kid rode his bus, they weren’t scared. He made them feel at ease.”
He was the kind of guy who did what he needed to get the job done, Schadler said, though back then little was known about the virus.
“I think the community, the state, the country needs to know that as this pandemic lingers and hangs around and we’re now given more direction on vaccinations and face coverings and all that, and a lot of people are still not heeding to the directives today — Stoney didn’t have all of those warnings and all of that information,” he said.
Aside from his position with the district, Stone was also a licensed minister and member of the NEA Union.
According to his obituary, Stone married his wife, Glenda, in 1977. The couple had one daughter, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Taylor County Schools
David Akridge, 69, was the first person in his county to die due to COVID-19. Before being diagnosed with the virus, he’d been delivering meals to students while schools were closed.
After his death on May 30, 2020, the district placed the bus he drove, No. 31, outside the board office with a wreath affixed to it, honoring his memory. He’d worked for the district for about five years.
“Being a bus driver was one of the most rewarding jobs he’d had,” said Gretchen Lawson, his daughter. “He said he felt really honored to do that.”
He took pride in encouraging and caring for the children on his bus, she said.
More than a year after his death, Lawson said she and her family are still struggling to process their loss.
“He was the life of the room — everyone just loved my dad,” she said in early November. “He left a void. Family gatherings are so different now.”
Akridge was a deacon at his church and loved to turkey hunt.
“He was just a very lovable person. He loved his kids and his granddaughters,” Lawson said. “He loved spending time with his family — he was just a huge family person. He tried to do good for other people, he was just innately that way.”
He left behind his wife of nearly 50 years, two daughters, two granddaughters, and several other loved ones.
Fort Knox Middle High School
Pamela Harris, 60, was a retired Army veteran who worked with the Department of Defense Education Activity’s Southeast District as a counselor at Fort Knox Middle High School, on the military post.
She died Sept. 15, 2020, died due to COVID-19. She was described as an energetic and dedicated educator.
“Her kindness, energy, and love for her job, was seen daily as she greeted students, and co-workers, with a smile and an encouraging word. The joy she possessed in her heart spilled over on to everyone in the building and in the surrounding community,” her school posted on social media.
“Our deepest sympathy goes out to her family, friends, and co-workers and we thank the medical professionals who worked to save her life in the face of this virus,” Will Griffin, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense Education Activity, wrote in an email. “She was a beloved and valuable member of our community, and she will be deeply missed.”
Fayette County Schools
Ruthie Martinez, 49, died due to complications from COVID-19 on Sept. 23, 2020. She was a permanent substitute teacher at Winburn Middle School.
Gov. Andy Beshear mentioned her in a press conference about a month after her death. “We will stay strong and we will try to make sure other families do not lose their Ruthie Martinez.”
Beshear referred to Martinez as a beloved wife, mother, grandmother and teacher. Her principal at Winburn, he said, called Martinez a “warrior.”
Her husband of 28 years, Miguel Martinez, referred to his late wife as a loving person who always managed to find the good in people, Beshear said.
Jefferson County Public Schools
A mother, grandmother, wife, attendance clerk and cosmetologist, Arethia Tilford was a busy woman who was known for her love of helping children.
Tilford worked at the Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School and also ran a beauty salon with her sister, known as Blessings from Above.
After a 25-day battle with COVID-19, she died on Nov. 28, 2020. She was 56 years old.
“She would always emphasize it’s about the kids,” her husband, Mark Tilford, told The Courier Journal. “She always loved helping, directing and consoling her kids.”
“We went on vacation a couple summers ago, and at the Atlanta airport, she saw some parent (from Lincoln) who recognized her and gave her a hug. She loved working with those kids, and she loved those kids,” he added.
The principal at her school, Susan French-Epps, remembered her for her dedication and warmth.
“Miss Arethia worked hard, was kind, polite, professional and very loyal to our Lincoln family and JCPS. Her sense of humor kept us laughing, and her positive spirit helped us to experience joy even on the dreariest of days,” French-Epps said. “She loved her family, but especially her children with all her heart. It is a tragedy that this virus took our bright light away from us, and she will be tremendously missed.”
Jefferson County Public Schools
Rufus Mason, 72, died due to COVID-19 just after Thanksgiving on Nov. 30, 2020, after being exposed to the virus at work, Gov. Andy Beshear said shortly after his death.
Mason began working as a custodian at Westport Middle School after retiring from the Ford Motor Co. for 40 years.
He was a “kind, gentle, caring soul,” Beshear said. He and his wife, Evelyn, had been married 52 years.
Trigg County Public Schools
Simone Parker was approaching her 20th year teaching science to Trigg County high schoolers and her 24th wedding anniversary when she was hospitalized due to COVID-19. Less than two weeks later, after being intubated, sedated and unable to speak, she died at age 46.
A graduate of the school in which she served, Parker was also a graduate of Murray State University, where she earned a bachelor’s in chemistry and master’s of science in environmental education. She helped lead various groups and initiatives at Trigg County High, including the community service-oriented Interact Club.
“She was very good at taking the students who were very shy or outcasts and making them feel included,” said Trigg County Public Schools Community Education Coordinator Sarah Elliott, who’d also been a student of Parker’s.
Trigg County Public Schools said it “lost an extraordinary educator.”
“Our hearts are with her family, students, and coworkers during this extremely difficult time. Mrs. Parker served our schools for almost 20 years,” the district wrote in a Facebook post. “Her love for her students and teaching will never be forgotten. In the words of Mrs. Parker ‘Be good. Be careful. Come back to me tomorrow.'”
DeSales High School
Ty Scroggins, 49, had a storied coaching career before his death due to COVID-19 on Feb. 10.
Prior to his last four seasons spent as an assistant coach for DeSales High, a private Louisville school, Scroggins spent nearly a decade as head coach at Central High, where he led the Yellow Jackets to five state championships.
Anthony “Ace” Wales was a running back for three of those state championship teams.
“He believed in me when nobody else did, especially being a 160-pound running back playing varsity football,” Wales told The Courier Journal after Scroggins death. “He always knew how to get to a kid and get the best out of him. I had troubles with neighborhood stuff and back at home when I was a high school kid.
Scroggins was hospitalized due to COVID-19 in mid-January and was placed on a ventilator later that month, his longtime girlfriend Sheri Duff told The Courier-Journal.
Along with Duff, Scroggins is survived by his three children.
Bardstown City Schools
John Davison, 70, began working as a custodian at Bardstown Elementary after retiring as an engineer for the United Kingdom’s North Sea Oil Industry. A native of Scotland, he and his wife followed their son to the tiny rural Kentucky community in 2008.
He died due to COVID-19 on Feb. 16, 2021; he’d planned to retire from his position in May.
“He loved it,” Matthew Spandler-Davison said of his dad’s school job. “He was well-known by all of the kids. He was a popular guy.”
“People enjoyed his sarcastic humor,” Spandler-Davison said. “He was a gentle guy, a really helpful guy but he was also a funny guy.”
Davison was an avid fly fisherman and active in his church.
He and his wife married in 1990. The pair had two sons and five grandchildren.
Greenup County Schools
Health teacher and football coach
Jamie Kennedy, 49, was just one week into his fourth year of teaching at Greenup County High School and nearing his 20th year as an educator when he died due to COVID-19 on Aug. 25, 2021.
Every student who came through the high school was taught by Kennedy since he was the health teacher. He touched every one of their lives, Principal Jason Smith said.
“He was one of those teachers that was every kid’s favorite teacher,” Smith said. “He just had a great relationship with the students. … You never heard an unkind word about him.”
The impact of his loss has been felt by the staff too. He made a habit of stopping by the office to see if anyone needed any help, Smith recalled.
“He put a smile on a lot of people’s faces each day,” he said.
Kennedy also served as the football team’s offensive line coach.
“He lived and breathed for football, family and friends, co-workers, and his beloved mother,” his obituary stated.
The district shut the school down the day after he died to allow students and staff to grieve and then again on the day of Kennedy’s funeral. The turnout by students and staff, Smith said, was tremendous.
“It’s been very difficult for everyone to overcome,” Smith said.
Kennedy left behind his wife and three sons.
Lee County Schools
Heather Antle, 40, served as an instructional assistant at Lee County Elementary before dying due to COVID-19 on Aug. 29, 2021.
Antle was known for “her kind and loving heart and brought joy to everyone she met. She enjoyed volunteering for the Lee County Archery Team and to help whenever needed,” according to her obituary.
She was a mother, wife, daughter, sister and aunt.
“Ms. Heather Antle, instructional assistant at Lee County Elementary, was a special lady who made a positive impact on our students and staff every day with her smile and energetic personality,” the district posted after her death. “She helped anywhere she was needed, assisted with the archery team for years, and brought great joy to the students and staff that she worked with.
“She loved her family, her job, the staff, and the students.”
Magoffin County Schools
Landon Fletcher, 59, died due to COVID-19 on Sept. 2, 2021, after more than two decades as a maintenance worker within the Magoffin County school system.
He had been in the midst of helping to remodel his son’s house next door,
“We saw each other everyday,” Scotty Fletcher said of his dad. “It’s been so hard not having him here.”
Landon Fletcher was a “the biggest” University of Kentucky and Cincinnati Bengals fan and loved mowing his grass and spending time with his grandkids, Scotty Fletcher said. He took pride in making sure they had plenty of presents for Christmas, too.
His favorite memory with his dad, he recalled, was working on cars with one another.
“He taught me everything I know about anything,” he said.
Landon Fletcher left behind his wife, three children and nine grandchildren.
Jefferson County Public Schools
Mental health counselor
Christina Duff, 33, was a mental health counselor at JCPS’ Lowe Elementary before dying due to COVID-19 on Sept. 4, less than two weeks into the 2021-22 school year.
She was the youngest known school employee to die from the coronavirus in Kentucky since the start of the pandemic.
A graduate of Louisville’s Sacred Heart Academy and Indiana University, she previously worked as a teacher in Oldham County.
“We have lost an amazing educator who gave everything to her students. And she was 33,” Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Toni Konz Tatman wrote on Twitter. “That’s what matters. She had her whole life ahead of her. We are losing too many people to this virus.”
“Christina shared her strong faith, brilliant mind, kind heart and incredible passion with everyone,” her obituary stated.
Carroll County Schools
Special education teacher
A recently planted tree outside Carroll County High School, near its food pantry, marks a spot where Tom Buchanan spent much of his time.
“This tree is planted in honor and memory of our friend, Tom Buchanan. Tom loved his family and his work. His fun-loving, kind and caring personality will be forever missed. All Tom did for CCHS students, staff and community will never be forgotten,” the plaque placed in front of the tree reads.
Buchanan, 59, died due to COVID-19 Sept. 10.
“He worked at various jobs throughout life, but found his true calling as a special education teacher. He loved his ‘kids’ and they loved him,” his obituary states.
He left behind his wife of 25 years and a daughter.
Lee County Schools
Bill Bailey, 61, died due to COVID-19 on Sept. 12, becoming the second employee of the Lee County school system to do so in less than two weeks.
“When we think of Bill, we think of his contagious smile and positive attitude,” the district posted on social media. “Each staff member chose a quote to go on their door this year and Bill’s was ‘Sweat now, shine later.’ As custodian, Bill always worked hard to make the building shine and he will forever shine a light into all the lives he touched.”
Bailey also owned his own lawn care company, according to his obituary. He left behind his wife, two children and several grandchildren.
James Monroe Austin
Warren County Public Schools
James Monroe Austin, 73, drove routes for South Warren High School and Rich Pond Elementary School for 11 years before he died due to COVID-19 on Sept. 13.
He went by his nickname, “Monty.”
“The students that rode his bus were visibly upset for several days, and one of the high school boys kept asking me if I was sure that he was gone,” said Forest Walters, who covered Austin’s routes after his death. “It was difficult for some of them to wrap their minds around such a sudden loss, especially of a man that rarely missed a day of work.”
After his funeral, the procession passed South Warren High, where students, staff and dozens of Monty’s coworkers gathered, Walters recalled.
“He was very much loved and respected in the community, and we really miss him,” he said.
Monty became a bus driver for the school district after retiring from International Paper, according to his obituary. He’d also served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“He was an avid golfer, motorcycle enthusiast, and a die hard University of Tennessee fan,” his obituary stated.
Caverna Independent Schools
A middle and high school math teacher with the Caverna Independent school district in Horse Cave, Amanda Nutt was excited about the return of students to her classroom this fall.
“Oh how I love having my kiddos back in the building!!!” she wrote alongside a photo of her class on Aug. 25. Less than one month later, on Sept. 14, she died due to COVID-19 at age 36.
Nutt knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time that she was a little girl.
On her profile with GoTeachKY, a state Department of Education initiative to recruit new teachers, she wrote that she wanted “to give students what I didn’t have when I was in school.” She believed in incorporating fun activities into her lessons.
She posted about her students often, about their lessons, their achievements and their experiences together. She was named Hart County Teacher of the Year in 2020 and earned her district’s Outstanding Educator of the Year award the same year.
“Her loss is felt by students and faculty and the community all alike,” Gov. Andy Beshear said during a press conference following Nutt’s death. “We’ve all had teachers that have made a huge impact on us. I remember them — the ones who we credit for our success. Amanda was that teacher to so many.”
Nicknamed Butternut, she left behind her parents, her brother and sister, two fur babies and many students.
Ohio County Schools
Lisa and Ricky Butler were married for 25 years before the two were diagnosed and hospitalized due to COVID-19. Only one was able to return home.
Lisa Butler, 57, died due to the virus on Sept. 16, 2021. She had been working as a bus monitor for Ohio County Schools before her death.
“She was too kind. She couldn’t say no to nobody,” Ricky Butler said of his wife. “She was a good Christian person and always helped her family and anyone who needed anything.”
The couple’s son just turned 21.
“It’s hard. Whenever I think of it, it’s kind of like numb,” Ricky Butler said a little more than a month after her death. “I just thank the Lord for the 25 years together that he gave us.”
Shelby County Public Schools
Matt Cockrell was just months into his marriage, a new teaching position and a new degree when he was hospitalized in early September due to COVID-19.
After getting married in June, Cockrell and his wife, Carly, spent the summer traveling before he started the school year teaching art at Martha Layne Collins High – his 11th year as an educator. Before that, he taught with the Cloverport Independent school district.
On Sept. 19, at age 41, he succumbed to the virus.
“He fought so hard. I was told 5 different times that he wasn’t going to make it and he kept pushing and kept fighting until the very end,” Carly Cockrell wrote on Facebook after her new husband’s death. “He was surrounded by his family when his spirit was lifted up.”
“I’m so sorry for everyone that loves Matt Cockrell. I know his tribe is huge,” she wrote in another post. “I will work everyday for the rest of my life to make him proud and to bring his life honor.”
In a June article published by his alma mater, Morehead State University, Matt Cockrell said his teaching style was shaped by his experiences as a student.
“Teaching art allows me to share my own personal story about the struggles I had in school, growing up, and how students who are currently struggling at school are not so different from how I was,” he said. “Sharing my success story and giving students this reality check allows them to see the possibilities.”
Jenkins Independent School District
When Joannie Bartley died due to COVID-19 on Sept. 20, 2021, the Jenkins Independent School system described the young educator, as “a special person with a true heart of a teacher.”
She was 29 years old.
“We were praying for her. …It’s rocked us a bit,” Superintendent Damian Johnson told The Courier Journal after her death. “She was a wonderful woman and a tremendous teacher, and our Cavalier family is better for having her.”
She is survived by her husband, mother, six siblings “and a host of loving nieces and nephews whom she loved as her own,” her obituary stated.
Monroe County Schools
A mom to three sons and grandma to five, Lisa Williams was less than a year away from her retirement when she died due to COVID-19 on Sept. 20, 2021.
The 64-year-old served the Monroe County School system for nearly 27 years.
In her latest role, Williams was the cafeteria manager at Joe Harrison Carter Elementary. Prior to working in the cafeteria department, Williams had also served as an instructional aide within the district’s preschool program.
“Mrs. Williams always had a smile for her students and staff members and cared greatly about her school and school community,” Superintendent Amy Thompson said.
Lee County Schools
Rhonda Estes spent more than three decades working for Lee County Schools, most recently as a counselor at the district’s elementary school. When she died Sept. 20, 2021, due to COVID-19, she became the third employee in the tiny Eastern Kentucky district to succumb to the virus since the school year began in August.
Estes, who was 56, left behind a husband, two sons and two siblings.
“Rhonda was a calming force with a positive outlook regardless of the circumstance,” Superintendent Sarah Wasson wrote in an email. “She encouraged and inspired all those she came in contact with. She did little things behind the scenes to help others and will be greatly missed by all who knew her. Please pray for her family and friends as well as our students, staff, and community.”
“Britainy and I are praying for Rhonda’s family, her loved ones and this entire community,” Gov. Any Beshear tweeted after her death. “Please, light your home green tonight in her honor.”
Pendleton County Schools
Monica Meyer, 52, worked as a special education instructional assistant at Southern Elementary in Pendleton County for about nine years before dying due to COVID-19 on Sept. 22, 2021.
“She built positive relationships with students and touched the lives of many during her time at Southern Elementary,” Superintendent Joe Buerkley said. “She has been an excellent employee and a true advocate for kids. While she was an excellent employee, we must remember she was also a mother, sister, and friend to countless individuals.”
She was a foster parent for 15 years, according to her obituary.
“Monica loved her children … She was always there for her kids and attended all of their school events,” it stated.
James “Tom” Bowers
Harlan County Schools
James Bowers, 67, began working for the Harlan County school district as a bus driver after retiring from the coal industry.
He died due to COVID-19 on Sept. 26, 2021.
Outside work, he loved tending to his garden, volunteering at his church and was an avid fan of the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Reds, according to his obituary.
“Tom dearly loved his family, especially his daughter Sarah and his grandchildren,” it states. “He could light up a room with his big personality and quick humor.”
Harlan County Schools
One day after the loss of a bus driver, the Harlan County school district suffered a second loss due to COVID-19.
Oscar Grubbs, 70, was a custodian at Black Mountain Elementary before dying due to the virus on Sept. 27, 2021.
In his death, Grubbs left behind two daughters and two grandsons, according to his obituary.
Johnson County Schools
A Kentucky football coach with a storied career, Jim Matney not only molded strong players, but transformed communities that were brought together by his teams.
He most recently coached Johnson Central High’s football team, leading it to five straight Class 4A championship games from 2015-19 and securing titles in 2016 and 2019.
Matney, 62, died Sept. 28, 2021, after a monthlong battle with COVID-19.
Starting his coaching career in 1982, Matney is among 12 high school football coaches in Kentucky history to reach 300 victories. He was named The Courier Journal’s Kentucky High School Football Coach of the Year in 2006.
“It really is a story of rags to riches,” Johnson Central athletic director Tommy McKenzie said about Matney joining the school’s football program. “We had only won a few games the previous few years, and all of a sudden he comes here and turns the entire community into a football community. Everyone felt like they were a part of it – faculty, students, staff, everyone. Football Friday nights were the biggest event of the week.”
Hardin County Schools
Billy Staples worked as a math support teacher at Lakewood Elementary School before he died due to COVID-19 on Oct. 9, 2021.
Staples spent more than two decades serving the Hardin County School system. He was 48.
“He impacted the lives of several generations of students and their families. He did more than provide knowledge of the essential skills of writing, reading and math,” the district posted on Facebook. “He created and nurtured relationships with students that taught them how to care for others. He modeled his strong morals and integrity each day in and out of the classroom. The indelible mark he made on students will continue to carry them through life’s challenges and joys.”
Contact reporter Krista Johnson at [email protected].