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Public preschool options in Hawaii vary during pandemic

About 85% of the public preschool classrooms overseen by the Executive Office on Early Learning are offering in-person instruction, but Head Start preschool programs and charter school ones are still largely remote.

The public preschool data was revealed Tuesday at a joint hearing of the House Committees on Education and Health, Human Services and Homelessness held to assess the pandemic’s impact on early learning.

“It’s not just about making sure that we provide development for the youngest amongst us,” Education Chairman Justin Woodson said. “This is also about making sure parents can get back to work, and they can’t do that unless their children are taken care of and they have that peace of mind.”

About 85% of the 31 EOEL preschool classrooms on public school campuses offer face-to-face learning, and that figure should rise to 95% next month, according to Lauren Moriguchi, executive director of the Executive Office on Early Learning.

Capacity for students, however, has been reduced to allow enough space for physical distancing and other measures to ensure safety for educators and children, she said.

“As a result, our enrollment this year is at 55% of what it would have been without the pandemic,” Moriguchi said. It could have been as high as 740 students, including more classrooms and more schools.

Classes are limited to 10 children per group, with a teacher and educational assistant.

“In our classrooms, children and teachers all wear masks,” Moriguchi said. “Teachers work with children on hand-washing and physical distancing.”

Head Start programs as well as prekindergarten classes offered by public charter schools are operating mostly on a remote basis this fall, officials told legislators.

Among the 17 charter preschool classrooms statewide, 70% are offering virtual instruction, 12% have a hybrid system and 18% are operating face-to-face, according to Yvonne Lau, interim executive director of the Charter School Commission.

“The majority of our classrooms are working with a virtual learning model,” Lau said. “We know for the youngest learners, this is quite the challenge. Our teachers are doing amazing jobs of piecing that together and teaching in ways that they have not been prepared for.”

The mode of instruction is left up to each charter school.

“These are decisions that we have left to each of our principals and their governing boards, based on the conditions on the ground and the COVID-19 infection rates.” Lau said. “As you know, every island is slightly different, so we’ve been able to allow our schools to make those decisions for what’s best for their community and their needs.”

Head Start’s program for 3- to 5-year-olds is reaching 1,544 children, but only 156 of them are getting in-person services, according to Ben Naki, president of the Head Start Association of Hawaii.

Head Start providers make decisions independently on reopening centers and planning for in-person services, he said. Providers include organizations such as Honolulu Community Action Program and Parents and Children Together.

Naki said finding qualified staff in the early-education field has always been a challenge, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, as staff need to take care of their own children whose schools are operating virtually.

The state Department of Human Services helps cover the cost of child care and preschool in private programs for needy families through the state-funded Preschool Open Doors program and through Child Care Connection of Hawaii.

As of November, 93% of those child care facilities and home-based programs had reopened while 5% had shut down permanently, according to Dana Balansag, child care program administrator for DHS.

The department ramped up its support for families affected by the pandemic, she said. After applying and receiving approval from the federal government, it waived income eligibility requirements, copays and some work requirements, given that many parents had lost jobs or were on reduced work schedules.

DHS Director Cathy Betts said applications for child care subsidies doubled during the period from April to October this year, as compared with the same time last year.

The department nearly tripled the amount of subsidies it issued through Child Care Connection of Hawaii from July through November as it had in the same period in 2019, at $12.5 million, up from $3.2 million.

“This is likewise across all of our benefits and services throughout the department,” Betts said. “We’ve experienced significant surges with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Med-Quest as well as child care.”

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