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Editorial: Distance learning not looking good

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In October, shortly after Hawaii’s public schools started their 2020-21 second quarter, the state released data showing that only 10% of K-12 students were receiving in-person instruction daily, with younger students getting the most time on campus.

At that time, about three-quarters of the state’s 171,000 public students were assigned to spend at least some time on school grounds — but most were still working remotely with their teachers. Plans were in the works for certain grades — particularly transition grades, such as kindergarten, sixth and 12th — to return to campus to start “blended learning” schedules, including in-person and distance learning before the quarter’s end.

Now, with the first half of the year wrapping up in two weeks — and amid mounting evidence that remote learning is a subpar substitute for in-person education — the state Department of Education (DOE) owes its school communities a candid public update on this back-to-campus transition, which has so far been entirely too murky.

Further, we’re overdue for a hard conversation about first-quarter grades as DOE has yet to release figures on how many students flunked a course or took an incomplete. Those tallies are needed to assess setbacks in the ongoing effort to recoup learning losses tied to COVID-related disruption, and inform direction for the remaining school year.

Elsewhere, large school districts in Houston, San Diego, South Carolina and Virginia are among those reporting spikes in failing grades, and including the public in sizing up strategies for academic recovery. Hawaii must follow suit.

In Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Susan Essoyan’s interviews with several high school principals earlier this fall, most said at least 20% of their students have had trouble with distance learning. In response, some school principals said they’re directing students with tumbling grades to return to campus for daily instruction. Such stories of needed intervention are encouraging, but a statewide accounting of grades is in order.

Following the mid-March pivot to large-scale distance learning, the DOE purchased laptops and other devices on a massive scale. While necessary due to the ongoing public health threat, it’s increasingly apparent that most students are more likely to stay on-task and thrive in on-campus settings alongside peers and teachers, even when all are spaced 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

For too many, distance learning is a poor fit due to at-home interruptions and a sense of isolation — understandably, many miss pre-COVID emotional support they received in school, both from teachers and socializing with peers. The DOE must move swiftly to better connect with kids at risk of disconnecting or dropping out.

In addition to school communities — educators, parents and others — Hawaii’s business communities and various organizations can help get students back on track. But the effort requires DOE to be upfront about the extent of damage done.

Moving forward, as the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) eyes the next school year, the union is calling for the Education Department to detail expected consequences of its proposed budget trims — needed to comply with Gov. David Ige’s directive that state departments plan for cuts to compensate for a 25% reduction in revenues, due largely to COVID-19’s economic fallout.

In a Wednesday webcast, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the DOE’s plan includes sizable cuts to special education services and weighted student formula — the annual per-student dollar amount that helps cover education costs. Among the upshots, Rosenlee said, is that 1,000 regular and special education teaching positions could be lost.

Given the many challenges now confronting Hawaii’s public schools, with teaching shortages among them, reducing the count of classroom teachers should not be an option.

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