Today is the first day of school for public school students, but rather than offering their traditional warm welcome, many principals advised kids to stay home given the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.
Schools had planned to bring kids to campus for part of a day, or more, this week to connect with their teachers and get launched on distance learning. The in-person sessions were set to run at least through Sept. 11. But many schools abandoned that approach last week as cases spiraled upward.
Because schools made their decisions on an individual basis, it isn’t clear how many public schools switched to online instruction from Day One and how many still intend to have students on campus at least part of the time this week.
But the tide certainly shifted late last week toward minimizing the number of students on campus.
“Evaluating the current health conditions and factoring for uncertainty in the months ahead, we will not have students come to school for individual classes next week,” Kalani High School Principal Mitchell Otani wrote to parents and students. “Instead, Kalani will have a drive-through textbook/materials pick-up.”
“Our faculty and staff were looking forward to welcoming back our students to the new school year but we know this is the best and safest decision for our community,” he added.
Waipahu High, with more than 2,700 students, had intended to bring a quarter of its students to campus each day for the first four days to prepare for virtual learning. But it jettisoned that approach and told parents that students would not attend face-to-face classes this week. Instead, teachers will host online classes to conduct virtual learning orientation.
Campbell High in Ewa Beach, the state’s largest school with close to 3,000 students, alerted families that only students needing support with digital access should report to campus, on a staggered basis. Farrington High in Kalihi and Leilehua High in Wahiawa also announced that in-person training would be available for those students needing it, at scheduled times.
“We will be contacting our high-needs students and students who need connectivity to see if they want to take advantage of the options of coming to school to participate in face to face classes for more support and to take advantage of our wifi labs to help meet their needs,” Farrington Principal Al Carganilla wrote in a message Thursday.
Schools will still offer grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches starting today. And students are expected to check in online for any meetings, trainings or classes scheduled this week or seek help from their school. Teachers were already reaching out to students on Friday to get things rolling.
“My two children are currently online with their @HIDOE808 teachers for the first time,” Kristen Brummel, director of the Hawaii State Teacher Fellows Program, tweeted on Friday. “I’m probably not supposed to be listening in, but the beautiful, warm way that these teachers are welcoming their students to their new space made me tear up.”
On Friday, cars snaked through the parking lot at Kaimuki Middle School for a drive-thru pick-up of back-to-school forms, school planners and school-issued Chromebooks. The process had started Wednesday for sixth graders, with seventh graders on Thursday and eighth graders Friday. Arrivals were arranged by homeroom and parents were advised to stay in their cars.
Rick Vietor swung by the school to pick up materials and equipment for his eighth grade son — including a viola. Vietor said his two children like distance learning and he is glad that Kaimuki Middle is offering students the full curriculum with its teachers online.
Younger son Jin Tan Vietor said he is happy to start fifth grade at Waikiki School online from home.
“When school was going to open, I didn’t really feel that safe, because we are in the middle of a pandemic and Hawaii has, like, 4,000 cases,” the 10-year-old said. “I don’t think it’s safe.”
“I do kind of miss seeing my friends in person,” Jin added, “but we use things like Google Hangouts to stay in touch.”
On Thursday, the Hawaii State Teachers Association filed a prohibited practice complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, alleging that school reopening plans were hazardous to teachers given the spread of the coronavirus. It said they should not be required to report to school since they would be exposed to many students in classrooms.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association also sent out a bulletin that day advising department heads and supervisors “to limit the physical presence of employees wherever possible to protect employees, the public and to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
“This should be done as quickly as possible,” the message said. “Employees who are able to telework should be promptly given that opportunity.”
Also on Thursday, Roosevelt High School advised parents that one employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and that all students would begin the school year with full distance learning as of today. Altogether, the Department of Education said that six employees, each at a different school on Oahu, reported having COVID-19 during the week of Aug. 8 to 14.
Staff and parents were notified of all cases and the campuses were sanitized, DOE said. The latest report brings the total of cases associated with public schools to 15 since June 26, according to the department.
The 2020-2021 academic year for students was delayed from Aug. 4 until Aug. 17 to give teachers two weeks of training and preparation for the switch to distance learning and new safety precautions. They returned to work on July 29. The extended training replaced nine instructional days for students, but some may be restored through negotiations with the union.
Doreen Tan, a nurse, said she’d hoped school would start Aug. 4, as originally planned, when case counts were much lower. She wanted her sons, Jin and Paolo Tan Vietor, to rotate between in-person and online learning.
“I was thinking, once we get started, they’ll feel less anxious,” Tan said. “But now that there’s more cases, I think the concern is warranted.”
After the sudden switch to distance learning after spring break, public school students did enrichment assignments rather than the regular curriculum, and were not graded for their work due to the pandemic disruption. This time, school is for real.
Jin, the Waikiki School fifth grader, hopes it works out better than the end of last year. Although his teacher was very engaged with her students, Jin said he didn’t learn as much in math and language arts during distance learning as in the regular classroom.
“It didn’t really feel like we were learning anymore — it felt like we were just asking each other how we were doing,” he said. “I hope we are actually going to learn, because it’s important.”