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Editorial: Help students get back to classrooms

A year ago, after Hawaii public schools’ March spring break, campuses were abruptly shuttered and distance learning emerged as a necessary stopgap to keep classroom learning alive for a vast majority of students amid the pandemic’s public health threat.

Now, given mounting evidence that the virtual setup has contributed to higher levels of failing grades and heightened risks for students disconnecting or dropping out, the acting state epidemiologist’s recent statement that public schools should resume in-person classes as soon as possible comes as welcome relief.

With the fourth quarter of the 2020-21 school year starting in less than three weeks, the state Department of Education (DOE) must push harder to phase out the temporary fix of distance learning — sooner rather than later.

Although a daunting task, given the safety-focused strategies that must be vigilantly employed, ramping up in-person instruction is imperative. The state’s own metrics for reopening, based on sustained low COVID-19 cases, call for in-person or blended learning — a combination of virtual and in-person instruction — on every island.

The first half of the DOE school year ended with just 12% of elementary schoolers, 5% of middle schoolers and 2% of high school students receiving in-person instruction daily. Since then, schools have been gradually returning more students to campus, starting with those in greatest need of recouping learning losses.

If low counts continue to hold for reopening metrics — based on seven-day averages for COVID-19 cases and positivity rates in counties — the second half of the school year should end with the vast majority of students spending significantly more time on campus. Distance-learning settings, though initially necessary, were shown to be subpar in regard to education, health, social and emotional support.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and the DOE, epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble pointed out: “As we have learned more about COVID-19 … we have also learned that schools are not, as initially anticipated, amplifiers” of transmission. Further, due to typically tight school-day structure, the campus is “one of the safest environments for children when it comes to COVID-19,” as long as mitigation measures are in place.

Kemble noted that mask-wearing, hygiene and keeping kids in cohort groupings can minimize the transmission risk — even when 6-foot distancing is not always possible. Most of the state’s private schools applied these tactics as they successfully brought all students back to campus in the fall, for at least blended learning. The DOE must now follow suit.

Last week, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE is exploring “viability” for opening “all, most or some” of elementaries for daily in-person instruction in the fourth quarter, and on Thursday a plan will be presented to the Board of Education. The plan should set clear terms for a quick-pace toward all elementaries returning to full-scale, in-person operations.

Also, while it’s encouraging that a recent survey found some 70% of teachers had either received vaccinations or had plans in the works to get shots, the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s slow-pace approach toward reopening is insupportable.

In a Monday news briefing, the teachers union president, Corey Rosenlee, said: “If we have low rates and our teachers vaccinated, then the next question is whether parents feel comfortable sending their keiki back.” He suggested that the DOE survey parent sentiment as it starts having reopening “conversations” with the teachers union.

Such delay at this time shortchanges students. With science rightly guiding decision-making — and lackluster results tied to distance learning well-established — it’s time to move from mere conversation to concerted action.

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