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Editorial: Rise to challenge of distance learning

It’s not good to have the keiki idling at home for an extended period of time — and a spring break that stretched from a one-week respite, to six more weeks and counting, certainly is an unwelcome extension. Given the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, though, the Department of Education has little choice but to align with the statewide “stay at home” order to try to quash the spread of the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19.

Still, a lot of what happens now through April 30 — perhaps even the rest of the school year — is within control of the DOE, schools and teachers. They must make the most of distance learning and creative lessons to educate some 180,000 public school students.

The DOE’s 13,000 teachers have begun reconnecting with students via enrichment assignments, using shared digital platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom sessions. This will be the new normal for the near term, further adjustment in a remaining school year that has already seen cancellation of highlight activities such as athletics, proms and off- island trips. Commencement ceremonies are in limbo — things don’t look promising — and the DOE will ask the Board of Education on Thursday for a waiver from 2020 graduation requirements, followed by a rollout of senior-specific graduation guidance.

Still, a full two months remain in the school year, so all students and educators should make the most of this learning time. These are teachable moments on the importance of resiliency, adaptability, creativity and perseverance — as well as academics.

In-person packet distributions will occur as necessary — but much of the distance learning will be done digitally. Providers such as Spectrum Hawaii and Hawaiian Telcom deserve credit for providing free internet, for 60 days, to households with K-12 and/or college students. All users should brace, however, for slower-than-usual internet speeds as tens of thousands of users come online this week.

Equally critical to students’ continued learning: Parents and guardians must step up to keep their children on task.

The DOE’s continuity of education during the COVID-19 crisis includes a parents’ website of resources: bit.ly/HIDOEVirtualLearningParentResource. A wealth of other free educational materials also are online, such as Khan Academy, Scholastic and hawaiihomeschoolnetwork.com (see “resources”). Hawaii public library buildings are closed for now, but an extensive catalog of e-books remains open 24/7 for borrowing. And for younger keiki, sites such as pbskids.org and Highlights Kids help keep them educated and entertained.

No doubt, digital learning is a boon in these sequestered times — but there’s a compelling reason besides education to keep kids occupied, positively, on digital media. Parents and guardians should be aware that leaving youngsters to their own devices, with idle weeks on their hands, risks a dark side.

State Attorney General Clare Connors, for one, is rightly calling for vigilance to keep kids safe online.

“The current situation with COVID-19 presents many challenges, including massive disruptions to our children’s daily routines and school life,” she said. “I urge the whole community to be vigilant about how our children are accessing the Internet and who they are interacting with online.”

Ho‘ola Na Pua, a nonprofit that works to prevent sex trafficking and to provide care for exploited children, notes that the lockdown presents a prime opportunity for cyber predators and online sex traffickers — which “puts kids at higher risk of vulnerability, perhaps now more than ever before.”

The stay-at-home lockdown is necessary for the sake of public health, to tamp the spread of COVID-19. That worthy intent, though, can’t turn into a detriment for youngsters — who need to keep learning, and to remain safe from the virus and other harms.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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