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Editorial: Huge challenge to reopen Hawaii’s schools

                                Hawaii schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto
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Hawaii schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto

Summer has arrived and the kids are transitioning slowly to their world of child care and summer-fun programs. But educators — especially those running Hawaii’s enormous statewide public school district — can’t indulge long in a lighter workload.

The sheer logistics of managing large groups of children largely within the confines of social distancing is one of the challenges they face in restarting education in August. The mandates of K-12 education during a global pandemic is such a complex endeavor, however, so keeping the kids safe with modified interactions is far from the only hurdle to be surmounted.

That is why lawmakers and school officials must put together the most robust plan that they can assemble, deploying existing federal aid with the goal of delivering education that meets long-term standards.

Academic rigor fell considerably by the wayside when the pandemic first hit, with schools racing to find ways of reaching and teaching their students remotely. It was a struggle for many parents to adapt to home teaching, as well. That cannot become the status quo, with students in danger of drifting away from their educational mission.

Among the many problems: Teaching space is in short supply on many campuses, even in the best of times, let alone the space to allow for all that distancing required for safety as the COVID-19 public health crisis rages on.

What happens when kids show signs of the coronavirus infection? How will working parents deal with alternative supervision arrangements? How will the state pay for the cost of sanitizing, on-campus health care, equipment and supplies needed to make this all work?

In preparation for a U.S. Senate committee hearing last week, the American Association of School Administrators estimated that COVID-19-related costs would amount to $1.8 million in an average-size school district of 3,700 students. Hawaii’s school district for the 2019-20 academic year enrolled nearly 180,000 students, compounding the spending worries accordingly.

The state Department of Education is due to develop a blueprint that should guide the Legislature when it reconvenes June 22. Of course, lawmakers should waste no time in mapping out the best strategy for helping the DOE hit its targets.

One step would be conferring with the congressional delegation to maximize the use of federal dollars. For example, Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announced Friday that the state will get more than $54 million under Title I, Part A. This is aid for schools to help improve teaching and learning opportunities for at-risk students, especially those in low-income communities.

Plainly, children from lower-income families often lack the home equipment and facilities to engage in remote learning, and every effort must be made to see that they do not fall behind completely as school resumes.

This will put a rush on the DOE to garner the funds. Each educational institution requesting grants must submit an application that describes how these funds will help position their school for academic improvement. The first round will be issued in July with the remaining funds available in October.

That additional cache of funds is welcome, but the DOE should have some claim on the $1.3 billion in federal dollars that Hawaii lawmakers socked away in the state’s “rainy day” fund before going into recess.

Early this month, state schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto announced her intent for elementary schools to fully open for in-person classes and a mix of on-campus and distance-learning opportunities for secondary schools.

It’s here that federal funding could boost online educational access for as many students as possible. In the private sector, businesses in the financial position to do so could look for ways to join that effort.

Parents also can make their voices heard on how distance learning could improve in a survey (find it online at surveys.panoramaed.com/hidoe/family/surveys?language=en).

In terms of campus safety, DOE has issued some basic guidelines to follow. Face coverings, of course, will be worn, and shared use of items will be discouraged. Classroom layouts will require placing seats a minimum of 3 feet apart — 6 feet apart where students will be facing each other.

But it will fall to principals and teachers to finalize arrangements. Surely outdoor spaces as well as libraries, cafeterias, gymnasiums and other facilities will do double duty as classrooms.

All stakeholders in education should weigh in as DOE officials and legislators get down to detailed planning in the next weeks. That includes employers who will need to consider more flexible work schedules as problems arise and, of course, parents who should start now to plot contingency plans for when their children must be at home.

This is a make-it-work moment to beat all others. And to make it work, now more than ever, the entire community must enlist in the education of Hawaii’s keiki.

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