Kainoa Chung, 10, had hoped to return to Royal School on the slopes of Punchbowl with his buddies to start fifth grade on Monday.
Instead, he and his dad, Justin, settled for a cheerful greeting from teachers and staff in the front parking lot of the historic school, where they picked up a Chromebook and back-to-school paperwork.
“I really wanted to come back because I couldn’t see my friends for such a long time,” Kainoa said. “It was starting to get super boring. Since this virus is going around, it’s hard to socialize with people. You’re just stuck in the house.”
Added his dad with a knowing smile, “It’s been the longest spring break ever.” A medical assistant and a single parent, Chung said he’s grateful to have help from grandparents to supervise his two children while he is at work.
Monday was the first day for students at public schools across the state, after the coronavirus disrupted their 2019-20 academic year. Some, like Kainoa, came to campus only briefly to pick up materials, while others had a longer school day.
At Waialua High &Intermediate School on the North Shore, which has an enrollment of 630, half of the student body came to campus Monday, with the other half due in today, to meet with their teachers.
Principal Christine Alexander said everyone wore masks and kept 6 feet apart, following markings and signs. Desks and chairs were cleaned between uses and everyone sanitized their hands as they entered classrooms, she said.
“It was excellent,” she said.“The kids have been wonderful. They kept coming up to me saying, it’s perfect, you have everything organized the way it needs to be and we really want to be in school.”
“The whole purpose of them being here is to learn what they need to know for distance learning,” Alexander said. “And it’s just nice to make a connection. Many of them are new faces.”
This year, the first four days of school were designated for orientation and training for students in distance learning, which is scheduled to last at least through Sept. 11.
The vast majority of public school teachers reported to work Monday. The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which filed a complaint over school reopening plans, had advised its members to take leave if they didn’t feel safe going to campus.
As of 8:30 a.m. Monday, out of the 12,820 public school teachers statewide, there were 496 requests for substitutes, according to the Department of Education. Substitutes cover for teachers who take personal leave or are out sick as well as vacant positions. On any given day, the number of subs needed ranges from 300 to 1,000, the department said.
At Waialua, all teachers came to work except for one who was out sick, Alexander said. While the day went well for the kids, she acknowledged it was a lot of work for the staff, given the new safety protocols.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “We are all exhausted.”
Hunter Harris, 17, has been on the front lines of the debate over school reopenings as the student representative on the statewide Board of Education. He is starting his senior year at Kapolei High from his home in Makakilo.
His school originally intended to have all students come to campus for a full day of orientation over this week, but ultimately made it optional and cut the time to two hours, he said.
“With the recent triple-digit cases for the past week, almost two weeks, it was very smart on their part to lessen the time and the number of kids,” he said. “I think that right now we need to come together as a community to make sure we are all safe,” he said. Collaboration is so key right now.”
Board of Education meetings are not traditionally known for being scintillating, but the sessions since Harris was sworn in on July 9 have drawn passionate testimony from hundreds of teachers and parents.
“It’s been like a roller coaster,” Harris said. “I’m a teenager, so I love listening to everything that’s going on and getting to be in the know.”
On Friday, the Department of Education reported that six employees, each at a different Oahu school, had tested positive for coronavirus that week, with none on the neighbor islands, bringing the statewide total to 15 cases since June 26. Schools alert their own staff and families of cases directly and the Department of Education issues a weekly tally by complex area.
At Royal School, Principal Eleanor Gonsalves said teachers will work from their own classrooms to help students at home.
“This way, the teachers have all of their equipment, they have each other to bounce ideas off, and they feel safe,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of my staff and our community.”
Fifth grade teacher Charlene Naeole was happy to be back on campus for the first day of school.
“I am going to do all I can to support the kids,” she said as she greeted families. “There’s all this uncertainty about opening schools. I wish it was open 100%.”