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Editorial: DOE, schools must be flexible

While slightly more than 174,700 students are enrolled in Hawaii’s public schools for the 2020-21 year, most have not set foot on campus — with exception of undergoing a short in-person training session for distance learning ahead of the first quarter’s virtual classwork. Now, with the second quarter slated to begin next week, school communities must assess progress to date in keeping students on track — and the recouping of learning losses caused by closing schools in mid-March due to the pandemic.

It’s encouraging that under new state Health Department metrics, established last month, some schools may soon be offering blended learning, a combination of in-person and virtual classes, with students rotating on campus on different days. However, there’s reason to proceed with an abundance of caution.

According to islandwide COVID-19 case counts for the first half of September — based on the number of positive cases per 10,000 population over a 14-day period — all schools were eligible for blended learning, and at least some neighbor island schools would have been cleared for in-person instruction. If those numbers hold, and sufficient protective measures are in place, the transition could — and should — get underway soon.

During the just-ended first quarter, many teachers and staff were on campus, along with thousands of students who have special needs, including language barriers and digital-access issues. As in-person learning ramps up, there will inevitably be positive cases. Avoiding a quick retreat to predominately distance-learning or even full closures will depend largely on school prep and responsible personal behavior.

Given the uncertainty tied to the spread of coronavirus, the state Department of Education must continue to shoulder the daunting task of readiness to pivot among all three types of learning models.

To that end, Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne has rightly pushed for stepped-up consistency in the handling of teacher requests to telework from home. At a special meeting last week, the BOE agreed to require school administrators to provide reasons in writing for rejecting such requests.

With many pre-virus school-day routines shelved, flexibility and innovation must be embraced. And it’s likely that community-driven projects can help support the DOE’s efforts as the school year continues.

Already helping to address a significant need, the nonprofit HawaiiKidsCAN, in collaboration with one public school and other partners, recently rolled out a “WiFi on Wheels” pilot project in West Oahu, providing internet connectivity to students who lack reliable service at home.

Hawaii’s public school system is obligated to provide the best education possible to every enrolled child. Currently, the best path toward this objective is by opting for more school-based decision-making than across-the-board directives.

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 DOE is sensibly tasking principals — who should know what works best at their schools, and be skilled in even-handed leadership — with a foremost role in shaping this unprecedented school year.

In regard to systemwide directives, though, transparency is still subpar in the reporting of COVID-19 cases. While the DOE releases a weekly case-count update, it gives only the complex (a grouping of high school and feeder middle schools and elementaries) in which a case occurs. In the interest of more meaningful public disclosure, which federal guidance allows, the update should be daily — and identify affected schools.

As schools get ready to launch blended learning, which offers students a modicum of last fall’s normalcy, collaborative strides will be key in the ongoing walk into the new normal.

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