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Editorial: Help students weather crisis

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A set of metrics compiled by the state Department of Education (DOE) is clearly signaling that for many students, remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person instruction.

Among other red flags, the new data show that far more middle and high school students got F’s in the first quarter of this year than last — roughly 1 in 10 secondary students received a failing grade in English or math during the quarter that ended in early October.

Given the abrupt shuttering of schools after spring break in March — and the weeks-long delay in starting the 2020-21 year due in part to the shift to online classes for most students — some backsliding was expected. But it shouldn’t be accepted, and must quickly be met with a vigorous and sustained effort to recoup learning losses and make gains.

This heavy lift is now compounded by Gov. David Ige’s call for state departments to impose budget cuts and furloughs as a means to cope with the state’s shortfall in revenues. While some across-the-board belt-tightening seems reasonable, the DOE and teachers should be shielded from full-force hits. Hawaii’s K-12 public education is in crisis.

The state Board of Education recently approved a 10% slice from the schools budget for the next two years. Addressing the board, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said: “The number of positions that we will potentially see (cut) coming from the school and complex level will be well over 1,000 positions potentially, and there will be a number of teacher positions very likely.”

Such slashing in a statewide system that has long grappled with teacher shortages shortchanges students — and runs counter to the DOE’s mission, which Kishimoto said is to provide students with the “highest quality education possible so that they can thrive.”

With the concerning first half of the school year wrapping up this week, prep must get underway for an improved second half. Students will stand a much better chance of thriving if the state allots sufficient funding for vital resources, starting with a healthy count of classroom teachers.

Further, the DOE must continue to take back-to-campus steps. The ability to pivot to distance learning is necessary amid the coronavirus threat, but it’s clear that most students are more likely to stay on-task in on-campus settings alongside peers and teachers, even with mask-wearing and other public-health protocols in place.

Among the resourceful ideas that align with preventing virus spread: pitching tented areas for open-air learning. More of this sort of imaginative workaround is needed.

For too many, distance learning is a bad fit due to at-home interruptions and a sense of isolation — understandably, many miss pre-COVID in-school emotional support they received, both from teachers and socializing with peers. In the absence of a swift and effective course correction, we’ll likely see backsliding graduation rates.

The state’s metrics show, distressingly, that overall, attendance is down this year, whether for classes that are online or in person. An estimated 18% of students are at risk of chronic absenteeism statewide, compared with 15% chronically absent in the 2019 school year.

While the data offer a glimpse of how students are faring, the current set excludes information on about one-quarter of the student body — students who opted for full remote-learning programs that do not include regular teachers; and cases in which teachers opted to not issue grades because of the year’s bumpy start. For the sake of piecing together a systemwide K-12 profile, the DOE must require more uniformity in reporting.

Despite Hawaii’s current financial challenges, we must make good on the DOE’s charge to make high-quality public education a priority. Anything less is a disservice to our state’s children and their futures.

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