Online instruction will likely become a permanent part of Hawaii’s educational system, alongside classroom instruction, the state school superintendent says.

“News of the anticipated establishment of COVID-19 as a seasonal illness akin to the flu has compelled the (DOE) to look at formulating a permanent distance learning platform that is integrated parallel to traditional in-class instruction,” Christina Kishimoto said Monday in a seven-page letter to Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

The statement by Hawaii’s school chief is the first acknowledgment to date of the DOE’s long-term vision as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose vast disruptions to everyday institutions, including here in the islands.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during meeting.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto laid out more details in her agency’s response to the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The traditional school year for Hawaii’s approximately 179,000 public school students effectively ended in mid-March, after schools recessed for spring break and never reopened as the number of coronavirus cases ticked steadily upward in Hawaii.

The current and final fourth quarter is not being graded, as students will be assessed on their progress based on grades through the third quarter. Schools have instead been focusing on enrichment, due to the wide disparity in remote learning capabilities for many students.

“Out of the kids currently in DOE, how many are receiving an education and not just theoretically capable of downloading an education?” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

Kishimoto’s Monday letter to U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Reps. Ed Case and Tulsi Gabbard came after the delegation sent a letter April 18 to the superintendent requesting more detail about the DOE’s response to the pandemic and how it has been tracking and collecting data, including the number of students without internet access.

The congressional letter also sought more information from the DOE on how it plans to use an estimated $43 million in federal CARES Act funding for educational support.

“We understand the coronavirus crisis knocked everybody on their heels, and that includes the (Hawaii) Department of Education,” Schatz said in an interview Tuesday. “But not knowing the status of education in each school and not even really having a handle on what it would take to deliver distance learning was what alarmed me.”

Schatz, who spearheaded the effort among his colleagues to engage the DOE, said there was a “lack of clarity of what came next,” particularly when it comes to expectations of grading and mandatory instruction.

Senator Brian Schatz in HCB office. 31 may 2017
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have been pressing DOE for more information on the district’s response to the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“My worry was that the system wasn’t ready for the very real possibility that the virus won’t go away in the summer or fall or comes roaring back,” Schatz said. “What everyone ought to do is hope for the best and plan for the worst.

“I wanted to be reassured they were not going to go additional academic quarters without providing mandatory education.”

The DOE is currently embracing a model called “Continuity of Education.” But that will soon give way to a more structured learning framework, according to Kishimoto’s letter, that includes “a robust summer learning program and a new school year of 180 days of formalized instruction, whether this instruction is delivered in our classrooms or through distance learning.”

She added that DOE will have to update its infrastructure, train staff, prepare students and families for different modes of instruction and figure out how meals and health services will be provided through a distance learning model.

“The HIDOE continues to strive to provide equal access for all of its students, but acknowledges certain limitations beyond our control that disproportionately affect our most vulnerable populations,” she wrote.

While the superintendent highlighted positive momentum, like potential mobile Wi-Fi hubs or digital technology providing internet for kids in rural areas and potential partnerships with Olelo Community Television or PBS Hawaii, she also acknowledged shortcomings in information collection by DOE.

For instance, there is no centralized database to log how many times teachers are interacting with their students during this time, and she provided no specifics as far as numbers of kids without internet access. She said approximately 85% to 95% of the student body is receiving “consistent educational material depending on the school.”

Without providing more specifics, she said DOE has provided “wide deference to teachers” in implementing their lesson plans, and how often they engage with students but that the DOE does “maintain expectations of teachers to regularly engage with their students,” ranging from a few hours each day to longer periods during the week.

Schatz said while DOE’s efforts to engage in community partnerships are fine, more information is needed.

“Out of the kids currently in DOE, how many are receiving an education and not just theoretically capable of downloading an education?” he said.

Local Education Hui Also Demands Answers

Political leaders aren’t the only ones demanding more information from the DOE when it comes to how well the district is prepared to deal with the pandemic.

He’e Coalition Director Cheri Nakamura, center, with BOE member Kili Namau’u, left, and Harold K.L. Castle Foundation CEO Terry George at a Board of Education meeting last yearSuevon Lee/Civil Beat

On Monday, the He’e Coalition, a group of education advocacy groups led by director Cheri Nakamura, sent a pointed letter to the superintendent outlining six questions the DOE has been unable or unwilling to answer with adequate detail.

The letter also raised the lack of available data on students’ access to technology and undefined metrics on how the department will measure how students are meeting academic standards without class grades or waived state assessments.

He’e Coalition — founded in May 2010 in response to teacher cutbacks known as Furlough Fridays — has “repeatedly posed reasonable, logical questions” to DOE to little avail, the letter says.

“We are left with the strong impression that the (DOE) and Hawaii Board of Education do not have in place a clear policy approach to the spring semester,” the letter says.

“There are no systemwide expectations for what schools or teachers are supposed to be doing during this period of online learning and engagement. There are vague terms such as ‘enrichment,’” it continues.

In an interview Tuesday, Nakamura said the hui can help community partners help the DOE, if it has facts and information. She has been fielding calls from people who want to make laptop donations or even donate money, she said.

“Having these facts and information can be helpful so we know how to help these kids or have a plan to reach these kids who are not getting connected,” she said. “If we don’t know the true situation it’s difficult to help those who are most in need.”

The DOE told Civil Beat Monday that approximately 12,000 devices have been supplied to DOE students, about 1,000 of those to high school seniors. But it’s not clear what the total need is or whether connectivity gaps follow.

“That’s wonderful they received 12,000 (devices) but did they need 13,000 or 14,000?” Nakamura said. “We just don’t know. It’s just, more transparency reassures people.”

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