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Editorial: Full support for summer school

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For much of the 2020-21 school year — following last spring’s abrupt campus closures and pivots to distance learning due to the pandemic — a vast majority of Hawaii’s public school students have been enrolled in either full-time virtual classrooms or a blend of online and in-person modes.

Now, amid rising evidence that the virtual setup has contributed to higher levels of failing grades and heightened risks for students disconnecting or dropping out, focus must be fixed on recouping learning losses and better situating students on a path to post-high school success. The state Department of Education (DOE) must make the most of its just-announced super-sized menu of summer learning offerings.

It’s encouraging that registration is underway for regular for-credit courses as well as for learning hubs tailored for individual schools — offering academic help and enrichment activities, such as music and art. Plus, there’s support for special needs students, a kindergarten transition program, and college on-ramp and internship initiatives.

What’s concerning, though, is looming worry about short-staffing.

For many public-school educators, this school year, which wraps up in five weeks, will go down as stressful at best; burnout-inducing, at worst. So, many may not want to teach summer school, even though a higher than usual rate of pay is being offered for part-time work.

On the bright side, though, it’s clear that the DOE is not constrained to forging forward into the “new normal” alone. The windfall of resources available via federal COVID-19 relief money allows for funding to address learning loss to go to school districts and private company contracts.

However, while there’s an eagerness among some outside organizations to pitch in with tutoring and mentoring services, according to recent testimony submitted to the state Board of Education (BOE) by community nonprofits, there’s no easy-to-navigate pipeline to forge partnerships with the DOE. The department must actively troubleshoot this matter now, to optimize its crucial summer catch-up push.

For starters, HawaiiKidsCAN, Parents for Public Schools Hawaii and others rightly point out that gaps in the staffing lineup could likely be filled with retired teachers, new graduates from education programs, substitute teachers and the like. Further, a top priority should be placed on fully serving communities with large counts of high-needs students. For instance, in the Nanakuli-Waianae complex area, an alarming 44% of students are flagged for high-risk attendance versus 11% in Aiea-Moanalua-Radford. Resources allotted to complex areas should be based on need.

Another nonprofit that looks for opportunity to improve the K-12 system, the HE‘E Coalition, has noted that 2020’s summer school offerings reached only a fraction of the total population of high-need students, despite considerable spending. To avoid an underwhelming student turnout this summer, school administrators, counselors and faculty should be redoubling outreach efforts now to publicize the extra programs to families across the state and motivate them to participate.

In a welcome move, the BOE voted last week to make regular summer school free this year, recognizing that students may need the help through no fault of their own. Fees normally charged — $190 for a one-credit course — will be waived.

In the latest round of federal pandemic relief funding flowing to Hawaii, public education is slated to receive a total of $412 million — about $2,000 per pupil — to tackle learning losses and a wide range of other needs to fend off COVID-19 infection in schools. Moving forward, it’s critical for the often-cash-strapped DOE to fully harness these one-time funds as a catalyst for stepping up student success.

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