Public schools will start the second quarter Monday still largely in distance learning mode, with plans to gradually bring students back depending on coronavirus health metrics and campus capacity.
Some schools are aiming to have a single grade level come for in-person instruction starting at the end of October, such as kindergartners in elementary, seventh graders in middle school, and seniors in high school.
But other campuses intend to stick with the Learning from Home model through the end of the semester, Dec. 18. All will continue to offer support at school for students requiring specialized learning services or lacking internet access, on a case-by-case basis.
Mililani High School, for example, plans to remain in distance learning through the end of the quarter, Principal Fred Murphy told the school ohana in an Oct. 2 letter.
“While we are eager to see all our students return to campus, the safety of our students, staff and community remains our highest priority,” he wrote. “We also value providing consistent instructional routines that minimize the disruption of changing models with short notice.”
Murphy noted the school had surveyed its families and found a “wide range of opinions” regarding students’ return to campus and he acknowledged that “there is no single best answer.”
The decisions about bringing back students are made at the school level by principals in collaboration with their complex area superintendents. Principals are communicating directly with their families, and plans differ from school to school, reflecting their individual situations.
Complex area superintendents have also distributed letters to staff and families about plans for the second quarter, which are posted online under the heading “School Year 2020-21 Models” at hawaiipub licschools.org.
Along with health guidelines and metrics such as case counts and positivity rates, principals must assess their schools’ facilities and ability to prevent the transmission of the virus, such as through social distancing and ventilation, as well as their workforce capacity.
The Kaiser complex of schools intends to gradually increase the number of students on campus during the course of the second quarter.
“It is our intention to start with kindergarten at the elementary level, grade 6 at the middle school, and grade 12 at the high school,” Rochelle Mahoe, complex area superintendent wrote in a Sept. 28 letter. “By December, we hope to also include our grade 1 students.”
“Each school will continue to meet with their faculty and staff to plan for this transition, being mindful of current case counts, positivity rates, health and safety guidelines, facilities and workforce capacity.”
The plan would allow for 25% to 35% of students to return to campus, starting no earlier than Oct. 26. Other grade levels will remain in the Learn from Home plan, with hopes of bringing back more students in January.
At a meeting of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 on Friday, senators urged health and education officials to align their school reopening metrics to the color-coded tiers being developed by the state and counties so people could better understand and shift accordingly.
“So when the governor says we are now in yellow or red, everyone would know what that means as far as restaurants, airports, schools,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the committee. “Right now … everyone’s sort of doing it on their own.”
Dr. Sarah Kemble, deputy state epidemiologist, said the tier system is a helpful tool although county guidelines may vary. The Department of Health’s School Health Advisory Committee has been working to update metrics that were published Sept. 17 regarding when schools should consider reopening. It hopes to reach agreement among stakeholders by late next week, she said.
“Most of the schools have already decided on their learning plans for the fall based on the previously released guidance,” Kemble said. “Many of them have taken a more conservative approach… and that’s fine. It has to do with what schools feel their readiness for reopening is based on the mitigation measures they can implement.”
Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said that each school has different facilities and circumstances, including how well they can implement physical distancing given their student population and facilities.
“While I know that people like one (set of) metrics that everybody can easily understand, the reality is that every school is a unique community,” Unebasami said. “And so what we try to do is create criteria that the schools will apply to make decisions and that’s what’s held constant. And the decisions and the outcome of using that criteria has to be looked at uniquely for the conditions and situations of the school.”
“In some schools, data in their community tells us that we need to hunker down a little bit more, whereas others say we need to open up our doors a little bit more,” she added. “We want them to have that ability to make that call and we will support them in that.”