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Editorial: New ways to learn in public schools

During the final quarter of the 2019-20 school year, the coronavirus outbreak brought an abrupt halt to traditional, in-classroom instruction in Hawaii public schools. Now, with a new year slated to start Aug. 4, educators are struggling to reopen campuses and forge protections against the ongoing public health threat.

It will be a tall order to meet annual academic achievement goals and other objectives while also complying with directives prompted by the spread of COVID-19. Tough challenges are ahead, so it will take every effort to carry out the back-to-school agreement recently reached between the Department of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA).

Among the pact’s requirements: Schools must ensure 6 feet of separation between and among students and staffers “whenever possible,” and use gyms, libraries and computer labs for additional learning space. Also, with a few exceptions, face coverings will be required for everyone on campus.

But already, a serious flashpoint flared Thursday, with HSTA president Corey Rosenlee calling “ludicrous and dangerous” any attempt by the DOE to space classroom desks just 3 feet apart, as opposed to 6 feet apart. Noting that community physical-distancing calls for 6 feet, a spacing that the University of Hawaii plans to adopt this fall, Rosenlee urged parents, teachers and others to “inundate” the school board with concern at its July 9 meeting.

Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, in a TV news interview, had said that 3-feet desk spacings might be considered if students were configured to faced forward — guidance she attributed to the state Health Department.

Clearly, this emerging conflict will need to be resolved quickly, if there’s any hope for consensus to launch the new school term safely and on time.

As for instructional models for the year, the agreement leaves it up to individual schools to decide, based on input from faculty and others in campus communities. Some may follow the UH’s plan this fall to offer more hybrid options, combining in-person and remote learning.

While that model holds potential to keep students on track academically, the DOE’s effort to provide remote educational enrichment during the springtime closure of schools delivered worrisome uneven results.

In a survey assessing participation, a mere 10% of middle- and high-school teacher respondents reported that at least 60% of their students “consistently participated in distance learning” during the closure. At the elementary school level, the participation was somewhat higher.

Teachers reported widely varying success in connecting with their students, depending on the community and grade level. Regarding device access, slightly more than 70% of students reported having adequate access in their homes — which means nearly 30% had inadequate availability. Those without could borrow devices from their school.

Viewing the remote learning approach as a work in progress, Kishimoto framed the survey results as “opportunity to use what we learned about equity of access to make permanent, innovative improvements” to digital learning, which is steadily assuming a greater role in K-12 and higher education. Indeed, vigorous actions must be taken, to meet students’ needs this fall.

The DOE has also agreed to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education on federally mandated testing for the 2020-21 school year. While understandable due to the need for “alternative instruction” methods, the DOE must continue to track student progress at each school toward measurable standards, with updates available for public review.

As schools ready for reopening, some trepidation is being blunted by health authorities and encouraging research. For example, according to a study published in Nature this month, people under age 20 are about half as susceptible to COVID-19 infection as people over 20.

Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued guidelines strongly recommending that students be physically present in school as much as possible, and emphasized that there are health, social and educational risks to keeping children at home.

The new school year will come with myriad obstacles. A resolution approved by Hawaii’s Board of Education rightly urges approaching them with concerted “togetherness,” acknowledging: “We cannot do everything required of us under the current conditions unless we do them together.” Those will be words stakeholders must take to heart throughout the difficult months ahead.

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