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Editorial: Consensus vital to reopen schools

Soon after signing off on a back-to-school agreement a couple of weeks ago, it became apparent that the state Department of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association lacked like-mindedness on safety details such as on-campus social distancing and face coverings.

In an encouraging follow-up deal announced this week, public schools that want to configure classrooms or meeting spaces with less than 6 feet of social distancing will need to secure special approval from a DOE-HSTA panel, with requests submitted by Tuesday — two weeks before the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Also, the parties agreed that teachers will set face-covering rules in their classrooms; let’s hope they err on the side of public-health caution. Both moves bring welcome clarity to reopening protocols as educators — and everyone else — wrestle with vast uncertainty tied to the COVID-19 public health threat.

Four months ago, the coronavirus brought standard classroom instruction to a sudden halt. Since then, it has become evident there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for keeping learning alive. Given the challenges ahead, an embrace of flexibility and cooperation will be key to making strides in the so-called new normal.

Along those lines, the DOE-HSTA agreement rightly tasks individual schools to select one of three learning models: full-time, face-to-face instruction; a blended model, in which alternating groups of students switch between virtual and in-person learning to reduce the number of people on campus on any given day; and hybrid options.

This individualized approach holds potential to work well if all involved are engaged and willing to do what it takes to balance health protection with keeping students on track academically — and recouping learning losses. According to initial research, the recent closures set back U.S. children, on average, several months in reading and math learning.

The springtime forced pivot to full-time remote learning here yielded uneven results. Teachers reported widely varying success in connecting with students, depending on the community and grade level. And in a survey assessing device access, nearly 30% of students reported having inadequate access in their homes; although those without could borrow devices from their school.

For many campus communities, the last quarter of the 2019-20 year bolstered belief that there’s no substitute for traditional in-classroom learning. But since relying on that model alone during the pandemic is plainly reckless, schools must work in tandem with their communities toward shaping new models as on-par options.

Among the remote-learning practices that have generated positive feedback and are worthy of further refinement: teachers offering students consistent, weekly virtual office hours of ample time for one-to-one or small group meetings; and making recorded video lessons available to all students after class.

Further, Hawaii’s corporate citizens should pitch in with technology assists; and perhaps some public and private venues shuttered due to COVID-19 concerns or recent economic fallout could be reconfigured for public school uses.

On Monday, California’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said instruction would be remote-only in the fall as coronavirus case rates surged — ditching plans for even a partial return to classrooms. Hawaii, meanwhile, continues to hold its ranking as having the nation’s lowest per capital case count and death rate.

However, the recent increase in cases in the islands serves as the latest warning that much of our ability to safely get on with public life hinges on strict compliance with directives for physical distancing, face-covering and other hygiene practices. In the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment, complacency could quickly further reduce our schooling options.

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