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Hawaii’s public schools stick with distance learning for rest of academic year

Hawaii’s public schools will continue teaching remotely through the end of the school year rather than calling kids back to campuses, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto announced Friday.

“We will complete the school year in distance- learning mode,” Kishimoto said at a media briefing hosted by Gov. David Ige.

Hawaii’s 180,000 public school students began spring break on March 16 and their vacation was extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools began offering distance learning on April 6 and the school year officially ends May 28.

Teachers have been working from home, connecting with their students online or providing hard-copy instructional packets for them and checking in by phone. Many schools have lent laptops to students who need them. Kishimoto said 12,000 devices have been distributed so far and more are available as needed.

Asked about the proportion of students who have not yet connected with their teachers, Kishimoto said that data has not been compiled statewide but principals are tracking the situation on each campus and following up with individual families.

“It varies from school to school,” Kishimoto said. “I am relying on my principals to be able to answer the question of what percentage of their students haven’t been reached yet and to make sure that they reach out.”

Grades will be based on performance through the third quarter, given the disruption the pandemic has wrought in many students’ lives during this fourth quarter. But students are still expected to do their best to complete school work at home and are getting feedback from their teachers.

The decision not to resume school, while not unexpected, triggered emotions for many. Logan Okita, a first-grade teacher at Nimitz Elementary School, couldn’t keep back tears as she described her feelings.

“I want to start by saying I miss my students tremendously,” she said, pausing as she choked up. “But this decision will keep them safe.

“I didn’t think when I said goodbye to them on March 13 that I wouldn’t see them,” she added amid tears.

Okita said she has been in contact with all of her students’ families and about 90% are regularly turning in their work, mostly captured in photos by their parents.

“I’ve sent postcards, recorded read-aloud videos and I check in as often as I’m able,” she said. “I know that our teachers are trying to create a sense of normalcy when this situation is not normal for all of us.”

Okita spoke at a news conference held by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, for whom she is the secretary-treasurer.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the union supports the decision to continue distance learning through the end of the year.

“This has been a very difficult time for all of Hawaii and that is so true for our students, our teachers and our parents,” he said. “I am so impressed with our teachers who have been working all across the state.”

“I never thought I would hear my daughter say that she misses school,” he added. “They miss their teachers and I’ve heard from a lot of our teachers that they miss our students.”

On Wednesday, the superintendent announced the cancellation of traditional graduation ceremonies at public and charter schools. Instead, each school will set up an alternative celebration to honor graduating seniors that takes into account social-distancing requirements.

“While we are saddened that students are having to learn some tough life lessons through this, I know that we will all pull together,” said Osa Tui Jr., HSTA vice president and McKinley High School’s registrar. “I’m looking forward to our alternative graduation plans coming together for my graduating McKinley Tigers.”

This is not the first time that members of the Class of 2020 have had their education disrupted, he noted. These seniors were in second grade when the state imposed “Furlough Fridays” in October 2009, shutting Hawaii’s public schools every Friday due to a budget crunch during the recession.

There had been some discussion of trying to resume at least partial services on campuses before the end of the school year, but that did not pan out.

Instead, the department will soon shift its focus toward rolling out summer school, which will largely take place through distance learning as well. Summer school will focus mostly on students in sixth grade and above, and include credit recovery opportunities for students as well as courses through e-school, Kishimoto said.

To support students’ health, both physical and emotional, a “health triage hotline and telehealth service” will be set up by the end of the month, in a partnership between the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene.

Nurses handling the phone lines will help assess physical and mental health needs and connect students to services, whether with school counselors, school psychologists or medical providers.

“This pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way that education will be delivered at all levels and especially how our department will operate moving forward,” Kishimoto said. “We have pushed our boundaries and created new ways of delivering on our mission … . I want to acknowledge the resiliency of the HIDOE workforce and thank them for rising to the challenge of looking for innovative ways to move our work forward through this unprecedented time.”

At rural Keeau Elementary School on Hawaii island, for example, administrators have made rounds on the school bus to check in with students who couldn’t drop by the campus to pick up instructional material or were unable to check in online. The school is offering online lessons and paper instructional packets as well as laptops pre-loaded with lessons for those who lack internet access.

“Students who don’t have Wi-Fi, they can pick up a MacBook and see their teachers’ faces, their library aides reading aloud to them, delivering math lessons, delivering project-based lessons,” Principal Janice Blaber said in a phone interview Thursday.

“We have about 900 students at our school,” she said. “I would say we’ve reached probably about 95% of them … . Our social workers will reach out to families we still haven’t been able to contact. We’re taking steps this week to head out to the families, following the CDC guidelines.”

Although campuses are otherwise closed to students, nearly 70 public schools statewide are offering free grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches for kids through age 18, and nonprofits are also providing free meals at other sites.

The Department of Education has posted information and resources for distance learning, labeled “Continuity of Education,” for students and parents on its website, hawaiipublicschools.org.

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