Convention centers, museums become classrooms amid pandemic

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Students from Hesston Middle School hold class at the Cross Winds Convention Center in Hesston, Kan., Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. In ordinary times, the airy convention center on a 61-acre site in Hesston, Kansas, hosts weddings, corporate retreats and church events. During the pandemic, it has become a schoolhouse for the district's seventh and eighth-graders.(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

MISSION, Kan. – In ordinary times, the airy convention center on a 61-acre site in Hesston, Kansas, hosts weddings, corporate retreats and church events. During the pandemic, it has become a schoolhouse for the district's seventh- and eighth-graders.

Megan Kohlman teaches literature and writing inside one of the rooms, separated from a math teacher's space by only a plastic sheet. It's hardly ideal, but for her it's an upgrade from distance learning in the spring, when she juggled instruction with care of her own young children.

“Everyone just really believes in the power of having kids with us as much as we can,” Kohlman said.

Some schools are getting creative about finding extra square footage to facilitate social distancing and reduce the health risks associated with in-person learning. Districts are setting up makeshift outdoor shelters, bringing in trailers to house classrooms and making use of otherwise empty spaces like museums. As infection rates rise across the county with the arrival of colder weather, some education leaders say they wish such approaches were taken more widely.

School systems could take cues from the health care system, which has found ways to increase capacity when coronavirus cases surge, said Joseph Allen, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health associate professor of exposure science who runs the school’s Healthy Buildings Program. He said the costs of keeping kids out of school are “devastating.”

“With schools, we seem to be stuck in this closed mindset where it is only in schools or in the existing setup or it is not going to happen,” Allen said.

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson is holding up the Hesston district’s plan as a model to be replicated. He said his visits to dozens of school districts revealed many were struggling regardless of whether they were offering in-person, virtual or hybrid instruction. In nearly every district, officials told him the models they were using were unsustainable because of the stress on everyone involved.

"We’ve got to change it. But we’ve got to change it in a way that we aren’t trading out safety for bringing kids back,” he said.