School officials are seeking input from parents, teachers and staff as they make plans to reopen schools for the fall semester, but it’s clear that whatever path they choose will face resistance.
An outpouring of testimony submitted by parents and teachers to the Board of Education on Thursday showed vastly divergent opinions.
Some pleaded for schools to reopen with safety measures while others said they shouldn’t open at all for fear of spreading the new coronavirus. Some demanded mask wearing and social distancing, while others said children aren’t likely to spread the disease and that masks are problematic.
“I want so badly to be back in my classroom, but I am scared,” testified Lori Hull, a kindergarten teacher at Waialua Elementary. “I feel like online learning is a poor substitute for in-person learning for 5-year-olds.”
“They just don’t get it if you aren’t there with them, but at the same time, they do not know how to keep their bodies away from each other,” she added. “I usually have 20 kids in my class, and I don’t want them to spread COVID to me and my family and their families, either.”
While some families suggested staggering attendance to reduce the number of students on campus at any given time, many working parents said they didn’t know how they would handle child care if their kids went to school only a few days a week.
The department hopes to reopen schools Aug. 4 for the new academic year, but how education will be configured is still being worked out. The board’s meeting centered on offering guidance to the Department of Education.
“My top priority is always safety. I think that has to be No. 1,” board Chairwoman Catherine Payne said. “And I agree the second priority is the students who are at the most risk of falling even further behind, further marginalized, because that is going to be at great cost to our society later on.”
“Beyond that, I think we do have to be prepared for a range of options for kids so it doesn’t make it so difficult to pivot” if there is a spike in cases after Hawaii reopens to tourism, she said.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said schools are likely to offer a mixed approach, with in-classroom learning within health and safety guidelines, as well as distance-learning options for families that can and want to take advantage of that approach.
Maria Seu, a teacher at Ka‘ewai Elementary School in Kalihi Valley, said her students need in-person support to learn, and many parents cannot provide it because they don’t speak English and might not have a high school diploma.
“Students in our community need immediate feedback, direct instructions and hands-on learning with manipulatives — all things you cannot really get through a screen,” Seu said.
“Distance learning has been a struggle and will continue to be one,” she added. “More than half of my class do not have access to technology, and those that do are fighting for screen time with their many siblings and parents.”
Preliminary guidelines for school reopening from the Health Department, effective July 1, call for screening students and staff for overt signs of illness; seating students 3 feet apart in class or 6 feet if facing each other; enhanced hygiene; use of masks outside classrooms; and meals in classrooms or outside, among other measures.
Kishimoto told board members that the provisions are “minimum guidance” from health authorities and that the public schools could adopt stricter measures.
“Our students and our staff not only need to be safe, they need to feel safe,” board member Bruce Voss said. “Perception is reality.”
The Department of Education is getting feedback from all stakeholder groups on their experience with distance learning during the spring semester and what they’d like to see happen. Panorama Education is conducting three surveys — of teachers, secondary students and parents — as a free service to the public schools.
The parent survey opened Monday and is available in five languages, with a June 30 deadline. It asks about device and internet access, preferences for distance versus physical learning, support needed and more. Parents may fill out one survey for each child, since experiences vary by grade level and teacher. The survey is online at bit.ly/FamilyDistanceLearning Survey.
Surveys of teachers and secondary school students were taken through the last day of the school year, May 29, and the department aims to have results available by the end of the month. Kishimoto told the board that 60% of teachers responded, a robust number.
Separately, the department is also collecting data from all principals on how distance learning went at their schools, what challenges they faced and the device/technology needs in their communities.
Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said social distancing is difficult in crowded classrooms.
“If we do open our schools and do not maintain social distances, we will face the same problems that were faced by South Korea and Israel,” Rosenlee said. “They quickly had to close schools after a rash of cases.”
Parent Katja Bajema, whose kids are entering second, fifth and seventh grades, opposes having children wear masks. She suggested educators consider strategies such as those adopted in the Netherlands.
“They have made simple changes at the elementary school level such as 6 feet distance between students and teachers/staff but not between children themselves,” she testified.
“Studies are showing the disease is not bad for children if they get symptoms at all,” Bajema said. “It is also showing that children do not play a significant role in spreading the virus to others, especially older people in the community.”