On Monday, my son and thousands of other public school students in Hawaii started their distance learning online or via packets snail-mailed to them. Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) leaders should be commended for taking this multifaceted approach to delivering “enrichment” to our keiki during the COVID-19 lockdown, even if lessons are not graded and most are assignments that students need to complete on their own.
The schools superintendent, Christina Kishimoto, could have taken the easy route and stopped all academic education for the rest of the school year. She could’ve said, “We have low-income students who don’t have computers or internet access”; or, “We don’t know how to serve special needs students”; or, “We have too many teachers who don’t know how to use technology.”
But fortunately, the leaders understood that learning loss is real and that an extended break could mean that our students, who already test poorly on standardized tests, could fall even further behind their mainland peers.
It was difficult for HIDOE to wriggle out of distance education because Spectrum, an internet service provider, offered complimentary access to internet and Wi-Fi for 60 days starting March 16.
One of the key issues the HIDOE is grappling with is that of equity. Hawaii public schools have students with vast differences in socio-economic status, learning ability and disabilities. In addition to equity in academic delivery, there was the issue of school lunches for Title IX students. This was solved with grab-and-go lunches for any child to pick up from a select list of schools at designated times. This is a good thing as no one wants to see any child go hungry.
Looking forward, though, it might be better if another organization can take over the free lunch program during a crisis so that DOE leaders can focus on distance education.
Another daunting challenge is how to provide distance learning to special-needs students as their needs vary widely with some having one-on-one support. Once again, it might be helpful to have a separate entity evaluate how best to serve these students during a crisis.
There is no doubt that our public schools will learn invaluable lessons in delivering distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis.
Hopefully, they will use this as an opportunity to make sure that every student and teacher is ready for e-learning in the future. Our public schools need to keep up with technology. We need to make sure that every student is provided a loaner laptop and every teacher is comfortable using distance education technology. Students who live in pockets of rural areas with no wired internet perhaps can get internet access via cellular service.
The brave not-so-new world of distance learning is empowering. It could boost attendance and retention because students who are sick with a mild illness will be able to log-in and participate. When students are away for sports or other trips, they will be able to do the same.
Recorded lessons and automatic transcription will allow students to learn at their own pace. Students can interact with peers in other countries. The possibilities are endless. But first we have to ensure that our public schools are ready to deliver the full spectrum of distance and online education now.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic caused chaos, but perhaps it also gave us the shot we needed to propel Hawaii’s public schools into the 21st century. Maybe this will create a sea change in the mindset of everyone involved in educating our keiki.
Shiyana Thenabadu is a photographer, community volunteer and former educator who has worked in public and private schools in Hawaii.