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Editorial | Our View

Editorial: Step up return to in-school learning

Eight months after COVID-19 capsized Hawaii’s public school routines, with campuses closed for the final months of the 2019-20 year, distance learning is still playing an outsized role in class instruction.

Now, with the second quarter of 2020-21 in full swing, the state Department of Education (DOE) in tandem with school communities — educators, other school staff, families and affected neighbors — must openly assess progress and setbacks in the ongoing effort to recoup learning losses. Also, environments that safeguard against school-infection outbreaks must be established.

The conversation should start with a straight- forward appraisal of first-quarter grades. The DOE should promptly release to the public statewide figures on how many students flunked a course or took an incomplete, as those counts are needed to inform direction for the remaining school year.

In Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Susan Essoyan’s recent interviews with high school principals, most said at least 20% of their students have had trouble with distance learning. That’s alarming but not surprising, given the negative social and emotional impacts it can have on many students. Sadly, in some cases, students who had thrived in in-person classrooms, are now disconnecting, and dropping out.

In response, some schools are rightly making room for students with shaky grades to return to campus for daily in-person instruction. More should be done to speed up availability of on-campus connection. The default position among key health authorities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that communities should, as best as possible, get kids back to school.

To that end, the state must see to it that schools are well-stocked with personal protective equipment (PPE) and physical barriers. Also, sanitation and physical distancing practices must be maintained. While federal coronavirus relief funding, which taps out next month, has so far covered some costs, Gov. David Ige has publicly said next to nothing about future funding streams.

Hawaii’s school communities need to put in place a robust protective infrastructure that could add up to a hefty price tag. Some national education groups, including the American Association of School Administrators, are pushing for $200 billion in federal relief funding for further “education stabilization.”

Following the mid-March shuttering of schools and sudden pivot to large-scale distance learning, Hawaii’s DOE made necessary purchases: upwards of 49,000 devices including laptops, Chromebooks, tablets and iPads, and expanded the department’s inventory of MiFi, a wireless router that acts as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.

Moving forward, as distance learning is further scaled back, it will remain as a stopgap due to the possibility of outbreaks. And that necessitates better vetting of online curriculum. An option adopted by more than 60% of public schools this fall, Acellus Learning Accelerator, quickly came under criticism for racist, sexist and outdated content, and has turned out to be an expensive mistake.

Hawaii’s private schools are now busy with students following various instructional modes; and about three-quarters of the state’s 171,000 public schools students are assigned to spend at least some time on school grounds — about 65% either now follow or plan to soon start blended schedules of in-person and distance learning; and 10%, in-person daily schedules.

While this marks progress in the gradual shift to more on-campus routines, classroom learning for about one-quarter of our public schools students, slightly more than 42,750 kids, is still limited to the virtual instructional mode.

As school communities and state leaders continue the uphill climb to the new normal, they must prioritize stepping up the pace toward getting all students back to school.

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