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Distance learning extended for Hawaii public schools, encouraged for private schools

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Teachers and families have more clarity today after public schools extended distance learning through Oct. 2 and private schools got more specific guidance on operating during the shutdown.

The Department of Education announced Thursday that its schools would stay in distance learning through the first quarter — or three weeks longer than previously announced — as the daily tally of coronavirus cases passed 300 again statewide on Thursday. The first quarter for public schools ends Oct. 2, followed by a one-week fall break.

Many teachers and some parents had urged the Board of Education to keep students learning at home at least through the first quarter. The Hawaii State Teachers Association welcomed the extension of distance learning but said more needed to be done to protect teachers and students.

“This is something HSTA has been advocating for weeks and we’re glad this decision has finally been made,” said union President Corey Rosenlee. “HSTA’s position is that we should have 100% distance learning for all students and our teachers should be able to telework.”

Meanwhile, the City and County of Honolulu clarified that private schools should use distance learning as much as possible during the current Stay at Home / Work from Home order after conflicting information came out the day before.

“In-person instruction is permitted at private educational facilities only in circumstances in which the instruction cannot feasibly be conducted remotely,” the city wrote in guidance published Thursday. “Instructors and staff of private educational facilities are permitted to utilize their facilities to carry out the instruction or perform critical research, and students may attend those facilities for any in-person instruction that cannot feasibly be conducted remotely.”

While most of the largest private schools are already in distance learning, many smaller institutions are offering at least some on-campus instruction. The city guidance said that private schools and universities must also comply with face covering and social distancing requirements as much as reasonably possible.

Distance learning is in effect at all public schools on Oahu and most on the neighbor islands — except for Hana High &Elementary on Maui, and Kilohana Elementary, Maunaloa Elementary and Molokai Middle schools, which are using face-to-face and hybrid models.

But even when public schools are in distance learning mode, some students needing specialized services are still coming to campus, and those who lack internet access at home are invited to use learning labs on campus that provide connectivity.

“When teachers are on campus, and there are hundreds of teachers on some of our campuses, they are putting themselves and our students at risk,” Rosenlee said. “The other problem is there are still thousands of students coming to campuses every single day.”

The union recently surveyed its teacher leaders and heard back from those at roughly half of Hawaii’s public and charter schools. They reported that about 36% are serving all their students through distance learning. Others are offering in-person services to students who are disadvantaged, English learners, homeless or in special education, in varying numbers.

Decisions about bringing students to campus and whether teachers can telework are left to principals and complex area superintendents, on a case-by-case basis. Rosenlee said that has led to disparate treatment.

“We understand some of our members prefer to teach remotely from their classrooms, and we support teachers having a choice,” he said. “But we know others want the option to teach from home, reducing their exposure to others outside their household at a time when business and government are encouraging people to work remotely whenever possible.”

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