Hawaii school campuses may be closed through April 30 to stem the spread of COVID-19, but many public school parents are being asked to come pick up hard copy learning packets or loaner Chromebooks from designated spots starting Monday.

“This week our faculty and staff have been hard at work at home to create a plan for students to be able to continue learning even though you won’t physically be on campus,” a letter Thursday from Kailua Intermediate says. “Teachers and counselors will be reaching out to you this week to inform you of the distance learning plan for March 30th through April 30th.”

The message is clear: school may be out, but learning will continue, in some way, shape or form even if just to keep students’ minds focused.

Washington Middle School sign. Coronavirus.
Schools are closed through April 30, but kids are encouraged to take up activities to keep their brains engaged. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told reporters in a press briefing on March 19 that the new learning environment would be a “mixed delivery approach.”

“We’re looking at all options. How to use web-based technology, who has access, what is the capacity and load for the state,” she said. “We’ll continue to make adjustments as necessary. The goal is to start some form of instruction for kids.”

For now, that instruction is in the form of enrichment. The state education department has created a comprehensive website titled “Continuity of Education” which lists suggested activities for students and families, per grade level. They range from looking at one’s shadow in a sunny spot every hour to observe what changes for elementary grades, to listening to a “Ted Talk” or podcast like “This American Life” or “RadioLab” for high schoolers.

Some schools have already started mobilizing, largely by arranging for packet pick-ups or surveying families about their technology needs at home to prepare for distance learning.

They’re also under strict orders from DOE not to introduce new units or begin new lessons until April 30 because of equity considerations when it comes to students with disabilities or special learning needs.

“We’re only delivering enrichment packets. A family can opt in to do that until April 30,” said Matt Zitello, associate director of Hawaii Technology Academy, a public charter school that uses a blended learning approach that incorporates virtual and in-person learning.

The tuition-free school requires each student’s family to have at least one computer and a printer at home and also internet accessibility in order to fully participate in blended instruction.

Lizz ( no last name) puts hamburger steak lunches into box to be brought outside for curbside pickup by parents/kids.
A volunteer helps puts hamburger steak lunches into a box at the Nuuanu YMCA to keep kids fed while schools are closed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“We are a unique school who was ready for this,” said HTA executive director Stacey Bobo, referring to the disruption coronavirus has posed to schools all over.

Although the school is in a better position than most brick-and-mortar schools to adjust to this new reality, it’s currently in a holding pattern because of its place within the larger DOE system, which operates as a single statewide school district overseeing all public schools.

“We’re using these two weeks from now until April 7 to deal with anyone who has been behind in their work, who may have been failing, who might need extra support,” said Bobo. “Our hope is that, after that, (DOE) will allow us to do new instruction as long as we have appropriate agreements with big entities like the union.”

Creative Brainstorming

The regularly scheduled DOE spring break was March 16 through March 20. Due to the escalating threat of coronavirus, the break was extended by a week, until Monday, then until April 7, until Kishimoto, in keeping with a statewide order to work from and stay at home, except for essential services or business, decided to close all physical schools through April 30.

Most other school districts around the country have also closed schools — for the rest of the academic year in a handful of states. The challenge of delivering virtual instruction in the midst of shortcomings like lack of internet access for many kids — or in some cases lack of supplies, a quiet space to work, an adult coach or even a roof over their heads — is a quandary being felt all across the nation right now.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto DOE press conference announcing pay increases for special needs students and other teachers.
Superintendent Kishimoto will announce modified graduation requirements for high school seniors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Kishimoto, Hawaii’s school superintendent, has been firm that shutting down schools for the rest of the year would be a last resort. She’s also clarified that closing campuses is not the same as shutting down the system entirely, which provides as much social and support services as it does instruction.

The state serves about 179,000 students. With campuses closed, the DOE has arranged for grab-and-go meal service at 41 school sites statewide, supplemented by meals service from nonprofits and other community groups, to keep disadvantaged kids fed.

The looming threat of a canceled fourth quarter has forced the DOE to consider modifying credit requirements for the 10,000 high seniors on track to graduate this year.

Starting last week, DOE teachers and other support staff have been on a “telework” basis. Many have used the opportunity to participate in virtual meet-ups, brainstorm sessions and attend professional development offered through things like open “virtual ed-tech happy hours” hosted by the Hawaii Society for Technology in Education.

Hawaii educators have convened and shared thoughts, concerns and ideas on how to navigate a new virtual learning environment, including technical specs like how to create breakout rooms in Zoom, how to maintain a community among students and keep them connected to one another or how to take attendance virtually.

Some schools are also taking the opportunity to remind parents to practice safe social distancing when picking up their kids’ learning packets, which are not mandatory and will not be graded.

“It will be like picking up groceries,” Wailuku Elementary officials, located on Maui, emailed to parents over the weekend. “No one will be congregating and waiting in line for a packet. Remain in the car. Sorry, no talking story allowed. Keep traffic flowing.”

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