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Editorial: Schools should keep options open

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Hawaii’s public schools students, most of whom last set foot on campus in mid-March, last week took part in various 2020-21 year orientation sessions. Some included in-person training for distance learning. Others were limited to “grab-and-go” pickups for computers and paperwork.

One across-the-board message: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s back-to-school plan has no precedent. Therefore, most of last year’s routines are shelved, and flexibility must be embraced to keep students on track academically — and recoup learning losses.

There are upwards of 250 campuses statewide, each with its own community. Given that no two sites are identical in demographic makeup and pedagogic priorities, the state Department of Education (DOE) is sensibly tasking principals with a leading role in shaping this school year.

A back-to-school agreement that the DOE and the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) signed off on allows 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.

However, due to the recent rise in coronavirus cases in Hawaii, the DOE is now limiting instruction to the virtual model for most students for at least four weeks. Citing potential public health worries and other matters, the teachers union is now calling for a state directive that would keep educators off school grounds, too.

Hundreds of teachers pleaded with the state Board of Education (BOE) on Thursday to let them telework, saying their employment contract calls for such action in emergencies, such as COVID-19’s spread. Many also called for extending the distance-learning-only setup to the end of the quarter, in early October, stressing that students, staff and families need certainty, not shifting guidance.

The trouble with this call for certainty is that until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, COVID-19 is continuing to deliver a frustrating-yet-undeniable string of uncertainty. Consequently, right now, students are most likely to make much-needed strides in an education environment that’s nimble — rather than in a static, one-size-fits all setting.

On that score, principals should call the shots based on what works best at their schools, which may mean that some teachers work on campus while and others work from home or elsewhere. Right now, given that school classrooms have undergone sanitation scrubs and other protective prep, they seem to be the optimal place for teachers to conduct virtual class, and in-person meetings with fellow educators.

Addressing the issue before the BOE, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said, “We need to let the principals lead,” adding, “Because everything is not equal, I want to give them the space to make those decisions.” Agreed. And there needs to be give on the part of both administrators and teachers, erring on the side of flexibility.

Also, shifts to more on-campus instruction, when it comes, must be preceded by plugging some concerning holes in protocol. Among them: While the DOE recently reported having a three-month supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), it could not pinpoint how much was to be allocated to the system’s 15 area complexes — or when. That’s unacceptable; clear pipelines are needed to distribute PPE quickly and efficiently onto the campuses.

And in regard to reporting COVID-19 cases, more transparency is needed. The DOE’s current plan — a weekly case-count update — specifies only the complex in which a case occurs. In the interest of more meaningful public disclosure of basic case numbers, which federal guidance allows, the update should be daily — and identify affected schools.

Moving forward, a collaborative effort among everyone in school communities will be key in the slow walk into the new normal.

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