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Hawaii teachers’ duties never end when working from home during COVID-19 pandemic

  • COURTESY WHITNEY ARAGAKI
                                Whitney Aragaki teaches AP Environmental Science and AP Research along with biology at Waiakea High School. She has been working from home, along with her 6-year-old son, Ren, who is using Google Classroom, and 9-year-old son, Cole, who is catching up on reading.

    COURTESY WHITNEY ARAGAKI

    Whitney Aragaki teaches AP Environmental Science and AP Research along with biology at Waiakea High School. She has been working from home, along with her 6-year-old son, Ren, who is using Google Classroom, and 9-year-old son, Cole, who is catching up on reading.

  • COURTESY ROBERT LAFFIN
                                Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, who teaches STEM Lab at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, works with her students on a social-emotional lesson using “Google Meet.”

    COURTESY ROBERT LAFFIN

    Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, who teaches STEM Lab at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, works with her students on a social-emotional lesson using “Google Meet.”

For many of Hawaii’s public school teachers, the shift to working from home only ramped up their responsibilities as they had to figure out creative ways to reach and teach their scattered students.

Lines between home and work have been erased. Many teachers have children of their own, also stuck at home, and must juggle their duties as teachers with the needs of their own kids.

“My school life is in my house — there’s no separation,” said Monica Heiser, who teaches at Kona Pacific Public Charter School in Kealakekua and has a 15-month-old toddler. “All of my parents now have my phone number. They continue to text and call me at all hours of the day for support.”

Teachers are putting in extra time to create assignments suited to kids with vastly different home lives. Some children have plenty of space, computer equipment and bandwidth at home. Others have none of that.

“I am making substitute lesson plans on top of teaching so students who cannot attend virtual classes have access to the content,” said Heiser, who teaches third grade. “A lot of people in rural South Kona live off the grid and can’t get a connection to their house. I have some families that are using phone hotspots to log in.”

With guidance from their principals, teachers at Hawaii’s 293 public schools are reaching out in various ways, with small-group online sessions, class meetups, recorded lessons, written instructional packets and phone calls. Schools have lent out more than 10,000 laptops to students in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veteran “techie” teachers are trying to help their colleagues succeed in a new world of remote learning. Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, who teaches STEM Lab and project-based learning at Ilima Intermediate in Ewa Beach, has been coaching her colleagues.

“I’m helping other teachers trying to move their class online,” she said. “It’s hard to watch really incredible teachers who just don’t use technology struggle right now.”

The Hawaii Society for Technology in Education is holding regular “virtual office hours” for educators, said Milianta-Laffin, a member of its board.

“It’s a virtual space where teachers can come ask questions, problem-solve … like ‘I can’t get my kids online,’ or ‘I’m struggling to reach these families,’” she said.

“Teachers are each other’s best resource, and in a time when the news is scary and we miss our students, we’re connecting now more than ever,” she said. “I just find so much hope in that.”

Waianae Intermediate School is using interdisciplinary projects to weave together subject matter and better link all teachers and students, according to Kanani Blue, a science teacher who grew up in Waianae in a family of educators. Students are researching how different countries responded to COVID-19, with a goal of writing an argumentative essay, said Blue, who heads the science department.

“Each subject area is coming at it from a different perspective,” she explained. “Science is focusing on how we look at the data and use it as evidence in your argument, social studies is looking at the claims and counterclaims and socioeconomic differences in the impact of COVID-19, and English is working on the writing piece.”

The school administration set up a schedule for students and teachers that mimics the school day, with teachers available for consultation online, she said.

“I would say a good 90% of my students are returning work back to me, whether it’s online or through the packet,” Blue said. “It has been nice to see them virtually and really continue that relationship that we’ve had in the classroom. And it’s nice for the students just to have an adult outside of the house that they can continue to rely on.”

Grades this quarter will be based on performance in the first three quarters, so no one is penalized for situations beyond their control. Students who fell short academically can get individual help to catch up.

Lory Peroff, a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary, always keeps in mind the challenges her students may be facing at home.

“Are the parents working?” she asked. “Are they sharing one device among four kids? Are they caring for their little siblings? Is there someone sick at their house? These are the things that are real in their lives … I think a teacher’s job is to say to the family, ‘We are here to help you no matter what.’”

Several teachers said they usually try to cover curriculum standards by the end of the third quarter, before the federally mandated standardized tests in the spring.

The cancellation of those tests, here and across the country, makes up for some instructional time lost to the pandemic. The Smarter Balanced Assessment and other exams usually take a week to administer, not to mention the time spent in preparation.

Still, some top high school students face weighty tests next month.

“While most of the state is celebrating the cancellation of mandated testing, Advanced Placement teachers like myself are working harder than ever to ensure that our students have access to testing material, structures and support with an entirely new protocol to test from home,” said Whitney Aragaki, who teachers AP Environmental Science and AP Research at Waiakea High in Hilo.

“Teaching a college-level course, we still have the responsibility of ensuring that our students have all the knowledge from throughout the year,” she said.

The College Board has shortened AP exams to 45 minutes of “free response” questions to be taken at home, rather than the usual three hours of multiple choice and free response.

Along with her AP classes, Aragaki teaches high school biology to more than 100 students in four sections.

“I haven’t heard from 20% of my students and I just hope that they’re doing well,” she said. “I hope they are staying engaged with whatever form of learning is best for them … I’m trying to offer as many opportunities as I can for them to connect with an adult who cares about them.”

The fourth quarter is usually a celebratory time, with prom, May Day, award ceremonies, showcases of senior projects and commencement. Aragaki has spent time with students helping them deal with grief over losing those experiences.

Meanwhile, teachers are facing a substantial loss themselves. Under a proposal floated by Gov. David Ige last week, Hawaii’s 13,700 public school teachers across the state could see their pay cut by as much as 20% along with other public workers.

“Teachers are really working at least 20% more,” as a result of the pandemic, Peroff said. “People are teaching in their bedrooms, they’re talking on the phone late at night.”

“There are no hours — there’s just need and there’s a lot of it,” she said. “We’re going to serve that need because that’s our job and that’s what we do.”

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