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Hawaii public schools try to bridge digital divide by sharing laptops

Hawaii’s public schools have begun lending computers to students who don’t have them at home, and teachers are helping students get back on track with online and written assignments as well as projects.

Given the disruption of the COVID-19 crisis, there will be no grades for the fourth quarter, but teachers will give students feedback on their school work and keep them on task, according to schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

At a virtual meeting Thursday, the Board of Education voted unanimously to modify graduation requirements so that principals have some flexibility in awarding diplomas to enable the class of 2020 to graduate on time.

“During this crisis period, the department remains committed that our seniors meet the content standards for all required courses, with the necessary adjustments in consideration of the impact of this crisis,” Kishimoto told board members.

Principals have been working on a document that will provide more guidance next week on issues such as calculating GPA, completing certificate programs and earning college credits.

“I support the graduation waiver to leave decision making to the schools,” said board member Bruce Voss. “But I think the schools must have some really clear guidance. … In short, a graduation diploma must have the same meaning in these extraordinary times.”

The school board also voted unanimously to cancel federally mandated standardized testing this year, exercising an option that all 50 states have requested from the U.S. Department of Education in response to the new coronavirus.

“We need to be focusing on what we can do to help kids,” said board member Maggie Cox. “I don’t want to see any of our students harmed in this whole process. This way, we can focus on the most important things.”

As of Thursday, 12 states had closed their schools for the rest of the academic year in response to the pandemic, according to a tally kept by EdWeek, with some opting for online and other educational approaches or extending the next academic year. Hawaii’s public schools are closed through April 30.

Teachers are using printed materials, enrichment activities and web-based work to keep their students learning.

“It’s a multifaceted instructional approach,” Kishimoto said. “It isn’t as if everyone is going to online instruction. Some teachers are holding classes via technology, but that is not necessarily across the board. It is a mixed approach.”

Schools lending out laptop computers stretch from Kaiser High in suburban Hawaii Kai to Pahoa High and Intermediate in rural Hawaii island. Molokai High already has completed schoolwide distribution of laptops, so “it’s in great shape,” Kishimoto said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that she didn’t have data on how many students lack computers or internet access, or how many devices have been distributed so far, because that is being managed at the school level.

“Schools in K through 12th grade have released hundreds and hundreds of devices,” she said. “We’ve distributed devices and hot spots throughout the system to provide enrichment opportunities throughout Quarter 4. Spectrum has been providing hot spots to many families.”

High school principals are expected to report back next week on the online status of their seniors to determine how many have access to the internet and how they will stay in touch daily if they don’t have access.

Teachers may produce a yearlong grade based on the first three quarters of the year for students who have completed most of their course requirements, while helping them continue their learning in various ways, Kishimoto said. Those who need to finish additional requirements will do so in the fourth quarter under a teacher’s guidance, she said.

“Even if they are doing ungraded assignments, they are being given quality feedback … to make sure they can be successful,” she said. “There is no grade, but there is a responsibility for keeping in touch with your teacher and submitting whatever the teacher has designed as an instructional model. … There is still an accountability that students have to their school and their teachers.”

Students in Advanced Placement courses will continue preparing for those exams with materials and help from their teachers, Kishimoto said. Students already taking college courses may continue through the University of Hawaii system.

Public schools are required by law to provide a “free and appropriate” education regardless of students’ background. Some educators fear a shift to online learning would not be equitable since it could leave out students with disabilities, English learners or kids who lack internet access or computers or parents to guide them.

But several children’s advocates as well as parents who submitted written testimony to the board urged the educators to forge ahead with online learning for those who have access and use other approaches for others.

“‘Equity’ doesn’t mean we take learning to the lowest common denominator,” HawaiiKidsCAN Executive Director David Miyashiro testified. “The DOE should serve the most students possible immediately and figure out creative hybrid solutions for the rest.”

The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation also called for action in the face of the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that things will not be equitable for our students,” wrote Terry George, the foundation’s president and CEO. “But it is far better to try our very hardest to help as many students learn as much as possible than to have equity of nothing.”

“We must figure out how to get books into the hands of every single student, still hold IEP (Individualized Education Program) team meetings for the most adversely impacted to determine how to mitigate learning loss, create communication plans for English learners and extend learning into the summertime for those at risk of falling behind,” he wrote.

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