Starting Anew: Maize USD 266 starts school with T4T hybrid plan

When Maize USD 266 students returned to school this week, they found a hybrid system of in-person and remote learning that was put together by more than 120 people to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses, support staff and others brainstormed over the summer, surveyed parents and overhauled school operations to keep everyone as safe as possible in this Sedgwick County district of more than 7,800 students. Then more staff were recruited to critically review those plans, which produced further tweaks.

The product approved by the school board after numerous meetings and input from hundreds will have pre-K through fifth-grade go to school on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Middle school and high school students will attend two days a week and then learn remotely. Everyone is a remote learner on Wednesdays.

The district is also offering all-remote plans, called Remote Rigorous (K-12) and Remote Flex (6-12). Both provide instruction in English/Language Arts, math, social studies and science but Remote Flex is geared toward students who are more self-motivated learners.

The overall Reopening Guide, dubbed T4T, or Together for Tomorrow, took a lot of time and work to put together and get the public on board, but has been generally accepted, said Superintendent Chad Higgins.

“There were some challenges. There is always the misinformation that exists about COVID-19,” Higgins said. But in the end, he said, “People realized schools are really in a tough spot.”

School board President Kate Doerksen said as the decision process proceeded, the community seemed evenly split between those who wanted all students back in school and those who thought staying all remote would be the safest way to start the year.

“The challenge is trying to get the input of all these people equally and make decisions informed by science and not by politics,” Doerksen said. While the board usually focuses almost solely on students, she said, the board had to consider school employees because the spread of the virus among them would shut down the district.

Both Doerksen and school board member Jeff Jarman said the amount of email and feedback they received from community members on how to start the school year surpassed all the contacts from their previous years on the board. Both started serving on the board in 2015.

“The intense public reaction is because of the importance of public schools in our lives,” Jarman said. He said it was impossible to design a plan that met every family’s needs and that one of the toughest jobs for board members was trying to balance protecting staff and teachers and getting the maximum amount of time for in-person education of students.

Doerksen said school leaders have higher expectations now than when schools were shut down in the spring when most districts pivoted to online learning because of the pandemic emergency.

“Last year’s shutdown was so rapid. What Maize and every school district did was shut down and do online learning the best way with little preparation. This time around it’s all about quality not quantity. That is why we went hybrid,” she said.

Superintendent Higgins acknowledged the district’s reopening plan may have to change quickly if infections rise and teachers and students must be quarantined. He summed up the start of the year, saying, “Nothing feels done.”

Higgins said during the first few days of school, teachers will be working diligently to assess students on where they are academically and emotionally and then developing strategies to help them. One of the seven teams that developed the T4T plan has been focused on equity to make sure all students are being served.

Jarman said the pandemic and need to adjust has put a spotlight on the need for quality local leadership.

“This is why serving on the school board is so important,” he said. “The issues are not always as big as this but there is always something a board is dealing with, and this has been the most time-consuming. It’s just a reflection of the importance of the decisions that we have to make and the fact that every plan is different. That reinforces the importance of local control and elected office,” he said.

Doerksen said she believes the pandemic has taught people that the success of the school district during the pandemic is in their own hands. “What COVID has taught us all is we are trying to take care of each other,” by following the basic rules of masks, hygiene and social distancing. “We can stop community spread such that our schools will be successful.”

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