At Waialua High &Intermediate School, administrators noticed as early as September that the seventh graders were floundering in distance learning — and they took quick action.
Even before the October break, they started bringing the kids back to campus for regular in-person classes, rotating half of them on alternate days to allow for safe distancing.
“Poor things, they are not used to having eight teachers and eight periods, coming out of the elementary school,” said Principal Christine Alexander. “They were really struggling at home. We noticed that with the midquarter grades.”
“We tried to be as proactive as we could,” she said, in making the switch to the hybrid schedule. “It made a huge difference, a positive impact. … Seeing how well it was going, we made a decision to bring the eighth graders back after the fall break.”
At public schools across the state, principals have found that distance learning just didn’t work for some students during the first quarter — for a whole range of reasons. And they are shifting their approach in response.
First-quarter grades were due Oct. 15. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser asked the Department of Education for statewide figures on how many students flunked a course or took an incomplete, but was told that data is still being verified with complex areas and schools.
Interviews with high school principals suggest it could be a significant chunk of the population — with most saying at least 20% of their students had trouble with distance learning.
“It was a struggle, No. 1, just to get used to the concept of online learning,” said Principal Dean Cevallos of rural Keaau High School on Hawaii island. “Once we did that, we now have kind of 80% plus that are doing really, really well and about 20% that are struggling.”
School staff have been contacting those students to figure out how to remedy problems, going door to door in some cases to track them down.
“We’ve been doing everything we can to make sure we know why these families are not coming to try to get an education,” Cevallos said. “It’s a variety of things: ‘I have no water, no power,’ ‘I got kicked out of my place.’ We have a lot of wrong numbers, wrong addresses.”
Many schools have invited students to attend learning hubs that provide internet connectivity and some supervision. That is in addition to the students such as those in special education or English learners who already were given priority for in-person instruction.
At Keaau, close to 50 students are now coming to the hub each day, almost double last quarter but still just 5% of the student population. Teachers are also starting to call back students in small groups for instruction in hands-on courses such as automotive, agriculture, construction and PE, Cevallos said.
“You can’t do construction without pounding a hammer or using a saw,” he said. ‘They’ve tried to rotate their students to come in on certain days to get the practice they need. Slowly but surely we are trying to transition as many kids back to the campus as we can.”
In Windward Oahu, Principal Bernie Tyrell at Castle High said between 20% and 30% of students had at least one F in a course in the first quarter. Because the school tracks student progress week to week, her staff started reaching out to students right away to find out what was going wrong.
“There are so many different issues,” Tyrell said. “With the economy being the way it is with the pandemic, a lot of them have to work.”
“I have had some of our top students kind of bottom out because they don’t have the peer interaction, the social emotional connection, the personalization that really helps them thrive when they are face-to-face,” she said. “I’ve seen some of them feel like they don’t want to attend, they want to drop out. That’s shocking to me.”
“We’ve had to reach out in different ways, providing individual support or counseling,” she added.
The Kaneohe school changed its schedule for the second quarter to better engage students, giving them more time with their teachers and with their peers in small groups as they had requested — even if it is still mostly online.
Rather than having entire days for independent learning, students have four classes with their teachers every day. Teachers can break up the 80-minute blocks into shorter sessions for flexible approaches suited to different students, including breakout groups.
Student “ambassadors” created videos to help their peers set themselves up for success in a remote learning environment, with tips on managing their schedules, getting their work done and building an online community.
“Being online, you have to be way more independent, way more vocal to be able to advocate for yourself than in a classroom, where teachers are checking in with your performance and monitoring you,” Tyrell said.
Campbell High School, the state’s largest public school, had a similar experience during the first quarter: A subset of students simply didn’t engage in online learning.
“We have quite a few students who unfortunately already failed the first quarter,” Principal Jon Henry Lee said. “So we know that they’re struggling or not even accessing the distance learning, mainly because they’re choosing not to. We have already sent out about 700 Chromebooks, so it’s not an access issue.”
This month the school began bringing those students back to campus for face-to-face instruction, in rotating groups.
“It’s a delicate balance because, of course, health and safety take priority,” Lee said.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has called for home-based learning through the end of the semester, has concerns about bringing more students to campus. It fears that schools may not be able to implement guidelines requiring 6-foot distancing, mask wearing, separate cohorts of students and cleaning protocols.
“The definition of vulnerable continues to be a nebulous catch-all that admin- istrators are taking advantage of more and more to bring students on campuses when it is not yet completely safe to do so,” the union wrote in a recent post on its website.
So far at Waialua High &Intermediate, Alexander said, things have gone smoothly. The school is relatively small, with 645 students, so bringing back the lower grades on a rotating basis was manageable.
“They are doing unbelievably well now,” she said. ‘They are following all the rules. They know the cleaning procedures and they’re wearing the masks. We haven’t had one issue with anybody. No discipline issues. Everyone’s been cooperative. And there have been no cases. That helps.”
Farrington High School in Kalihi, where vulnerable students needing specialized services are already attending school daily, intends to bring back its seniors, divided into four groups, for face-to-face instruction one day a week starting Nov. 30.
“The goal is to bring back our students slowly and as safely as possible given the many known and established benefits of in-person learning,” Principal Al Carganilla wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to families.
The school will decide later this month whether the plan is a go, depending on COVID-19 case counts, positivity rates, mitigation strategies and workforce capacity.
Schools must be flexible and adjust to the coronavirus situation as it unfolds, according to Cevallos.
“My personal thought on this is even if we get a vaccine, this is not going to go away just like the flu,” Cevallos said. “So what we have to do is learn to live with it.”
“If we open up and we get a case, you have to shut down the school and do your contact tracing and clean up,” he said. “Once that’s done, you open up. Even though I don’t like to think in this fashion, it is the way that we’re living now.”