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Editorial: More options for student learning

Transitions are difficult under any circumstance, and the one confronting the state Department of Education as the pandemic slowly recedes will be more difficult than ever.

On Aug. 3, students will return to in-person instruction in every public school. Most of them are hungry for the social interaction they’ve missed in the past year-and-a-half of their academic life, many of them also struggling to overcome a crippling learning loss.

They are doing so within a statewide school system still bearing up under deep budget cuts, not all of which were reversed by the considerable federal relief funds that came in. A change in department administration, under a new interim schools superintendent next month, has yet to play out, further complicating DOE efforts.

And it’s all happening within a landscape that’s continuing to shift. The arrival of a viral variant that’s more contagious and possibly more dangerous to youth has added more uncertainty, especially to those under 12 who still have no vaccine options available.

Even so, the plain fact is that schools did manage to gain some proficiency with online teaching and on investment in equipment students needed to participate. These were tools and skills that were underutilized before COVID-19 forced the shutdown of schools.

It would be a waste to let that learning lapse as well, without permanently establishing a more robust capacity for distance learning across Hawaii’s public school system.

Christina Kishimoto, the outgoing superintendent, has asserted in no uncertain terms that the focus must be on reconnecting students with teachers and with each other, and that the DOE lacks the funding now to staff up with more teachers to run an online learning option on a parallel track.

She is right on both counts. Catching kids up on what they may have missed — especially students who already were lagging, pre-pandemic — would require a more hands-on approach.

And clearly schools do not yet have the funds to create a freestanding online academy that could serve more of the families who want that option.

However, just as clearly, this is the direction public schools should take, for the medium and long term, and going beyond the accommodations principals may make for families in special cases. David Miyashiro, executive director for the advocacy organization HawaiiKidsCAN, rightly underscored for the state school board June 3 that DOE plans should include that component.

“We believe a centralized public option for distance learning is incredibly important in this period of transition,” Miyashiro said. “While in-person instruction is best for most students, a quality centralized distance option would be both cost-effective and responsive to family needs.”

Charter schools, such as Myron B. Thompson Academy and Hawaii Technology Academy, have well-honed online programs, but there may be public demand to expand with new distance-learning charter schools. But this teaching platform deserves a permanent home within the DOE itself, as well.

Until then, schools will need to maximize the effectiveness of COVID-19 safety protocols. Making the most of classes while masked indoors as well as outdoor learning settings are critical, as is keeping children and adults home when sick.

Gov. David Ige should rethink his intent to veto Senate Bill 811, requiring a weekly report on school COVID-19 positive cases. That transparency becomes increasingly crucial under current pandemic conditions.

Finally, adults who are still holding out on taking a COVID-19 shot should remember: The best way to protect vulnerable children is still to guard against infections themselves. Please, school parents and staff: Get vaccinated, now.

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