COVID-19 has sparked the crisis of our lifetime in Hawaii. We all feel stress and uncertainty as a result, but the burden is especially heavy for children who cannot attend school in person. Make no mistake — distance learning is extremely challenging. Students miss the human connection and the impact of learning loss will be significant. McKinsey & Company estimates COVID-19-related learning losses will directly result in the average K-12 student in the United States losing $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings, which translates into an estimated impact of $110 billion annual earnings.
Its challenges do not stop there. Our vast digital divide continues to group students into haves and have-nots. And working parents are now faced with impossible choices.
It is for this reason that HawaiiKidsCAN created a petition asking the governor to direct $10 million in emergency funds under the CARES Act — called the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund — to help families educate their children in this time of crisis. States including North Carolina, Arizona, Minnesota and Tennessee, have adopted policies that put money into the hands of families for critical education needs.
This is a complex time, and financial pressures and health concerns have only increased the needs of local families. It has been reported that the Hawaii Department of Education still needs tens of thousands of computers, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots. There are also many families who are trying homeschooling for the first time due to better control over safety.
We believe funds should be distributed directly to families so they can be used on a range of education-related expenses including: jointly hiring a teacher with several other families so that a small group of kids can receive in-person instruction, or buying a computer or other needed hardware, will help bridge this gap quickly.
This isn’t a pie in the sky idea. Oklahoma used $8 million from its GEER Fund to create the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet initiative, connecting up to 5,000 low-income families with $1,500 grants to purchase materials for students ahead of the 2020-21 school year. This is a streamlined online process that trusts families to address their own needs, while creating a platform to ensure funds are used on quality approved education providers.
To get this going, the state of Hawaii would announce program and set up digital wallet platform. Eligible families would apply online. When approved, the state instantly puts emergency education dollars into their digital wallet account. Families then use their funds to select from approved education providers so kids can get help they need in this time of crisis, including technology, school supplies or for supervision at distance learning sites.
This is designed to be a simple one-stop process, sort of like a Venmo for education. For example, a similar platform could enable working parents to use their funds to pay for great child support services such as the YMCA Learning Centers or CoWorking for Kids during distance learning time. Parents have shared that these programs have been a critical support, especially if they are essential workers. For kids, this controlled and safe social interaction is vital for student happiness and mental health, especially at younger ages.
This is an emergency situation that requires an emergency response. Now is the time to spring into action for our struggling families. If you agree, sign our petition at bit.ly/hawaiigeer and make your voice heard.
David Miyashiro is executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN.