Starting Anew: Hesston looked to community partners for additional space

In Hesston USD 460, school leaders heard loud and clear from many community members that when the new school year started they wanted students back in the classroom.

But to manage that while observing social distancing and cleaning requirements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was soon apparent more space was needed for the 820 students who attend school in three buildings in the district, which is located about 35 miles north of Wichita.

So, districts officials started looking off campus.

Now, some Hesston students are attending classes at the Cross Wind Conference Center outside of town. And if the COVID-19 infection rate increases, and the district moves to graduated mitigation, the doors of a couple of churches will be opened up to take in students for school.

“It’s a unique approach,” said Hesston Superintendent Ben Proctor. “We have very good community partners,” Proctor added.

Under the plan, Hesston started school under “moderate risk,” which means K-4 students attend Hesston Elementary School; grades 5 and 6 attend Hesston Middle School; grades 7 and 8 are bused to the conference center and half of high school students attend a morning session and the other half an afternoon session — all at the high school.

“The community involvement in Hesston has just blown us away,” said Layne Frick, a member of the Hesston USD 460 board.

The district also has plans that would enable pivoting to complete K-12 remote learning if necessary or have all students back in buildings at the same time.

Proctor said the conference center has several large spaces, including an outdoor deck, that can be used to gather children for school.

In addition, about five percent of students are receiving remote learning.

The start-of-school plan was the result of numerous community meetings, public input and in-house teacher and administrator committee work.

“We’ve had lots of participation,” Proctor said, noting that the district has made adjustments based on that public input. One thing, he said, they found out is that some complained they felt swamped by all the information. So, the district made an effort to provide the information in more concise and relevant ways.

“I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect, and that it doesn’t create anxiety for people. I think when we settle in, it will be a really good thing for us,” he said.

At the Sept. 14 school board meeting, administrators told the school board that the first days of school went really well. “It has been about as smooth of a start as we could imagine,” Proctor said.

Susan Lamb, who has been a board member for nearly five years, said the new school year began successfully, partly because Hesston is a helpful community and that ties built up over the years “served us well.” Lamb added, “We have a high degree of collaboration … built over the generations. We have done a lot of relationship building.” She also credited Proctor in interacting with other local partners and the community.

Prior to school starting, Hesston district staff fielded and answered numerous questions from parents during a two-hour virtual and in-person community meeting.

The questions focused on lunch, recess, building visitors, birthday parties, dismissal times, school entrances and exits, masking, arrival times, traveling and getting on and off buses, temperature checks, gating criteria, dropping students off and picking them up, what happens if a child has a fever, remote learning, how to get students to vo-tech, parental notice on COVID-19 positives and how will band, choir and other extra-curricular activities operate. Each of the questions was answered.

Proctor said the first two orders of business in the new school year will be to get students accustomed to the different look of school. Instead of desks facing each other for group work, they will be spread out more. Secondly, teachers have to diagnose where the students are academically and emotionally after having been absent from school since March when schools were shutdown statewide.

“We have to create a positive atmosphere for them and then we start focusing on academics,” he said.

When asked what has he learned since the last year when schools were closed, Proctor said, “The biggest thing we’ve learned is just not to take the time we have with the kids for granted. We don’t know what the future will hold here. We need to see every day as a good opportunity to engage kids; we need to take advantage of the time.”

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