The massive disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic is posing to schools in Hawaii and all over the country is exposing the digital divide between kids with home access to high-speed internet and computers and those without.

Hawaii’s 293 public school campuses are closed through April 30, but many schools began remote learning plans last week, either electronically or by distributing hard-copy enrichment packets for students.

This “enrichment” time isn’t meant to confer official grades or introduce new lessons, although Advanced Placement or Early College classes offered through the University of Hawaii system are resuming instruction online.

“I wish we could have a computer but we could never afford that,” said Diana Ii, a Kalihi resident whose two grandsons rely on their public elementary school libraries for computer use.

Kalihi Waena Elementary School packet pickup at their cafeteria. Coronavirus
Staff at Kalihi Waena Elementary arrange for enrichment packet pickups in the school cafeteria. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Without easy electronic access to education materials, Ii — whose daughter is a single parent, which is why she steps in to help out — is at a loss. The boys fill their days by helping with household chores, playing Monopoly or cards or getting fresh air outside.

“I take them down the road to housing, they ride their bikes,” she said. “There is no kids outside.”

The benefits of being able to get online from home extend not just to learning materials — the trove of online educational resources is vast — but to valuable face-to-face time with teachers over platforms like WebEx, Google Meet or Zoom.

Paper packets, an option for students who don’t have internet or a device at home, are not resubmitted to staff due to fears of potential virus transmission, so students have no way of getting any feedback.

While the Hawaii Department of Education doesn’t track the number of students that lack access to the internet or a computing device, comments shared by teachers over social media and message groups in recent weeks suggest the need is deep.

Having an adequate setup at home doesn’t guarantee seamless online learning either, said Abigail Rose, a special education teacher at Ilima Intermediate.

“Even if we get all of this stuff online, it doesn’t mean the kids can do it. It means, some kids who are in the upper ranks can do it, in terms of income, education and where their parents work,” she said.

During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE is working on tracking how many high school seniors have a device or ability to get online. The state Board of Education recently approved easing graduation requirements for the state’s roughly 1,100 seniors due to disruption to the school year.

Different Approaches

Nationwide, the threat of COVID-19 has led to statewide school closures in 46 states, impacting more than 124,000 public and private schools and 55 million students, according to Education Week.

In Hawaii, roughly 100 private schools enroll a total of 34,800 students while the public schools serve about 179,000 students. Altogether, 213,000 K-12 students here are impacted by closures due to coronavirus, but there are glaring differences between public and private schools when it comes to remote learning capabilities.

Private school Punahou has a distance learning plan where students and teachers use an online learning management system. 

For instance, students at private schools like Punahou, Iolani and Kamehameha Schools all receive either a MacBook, iPad or laptop. Punahou has long integrated technology into its learning environment and is a member of the Global Online Academy, a consortium of schools around the U.S. that provide online courses, according to president Michael Latham.

Students in grades 6-12 use an online learning management system to connect with teachers, manage their assignments and receive feedback, Latham added.

At Iolani, a K-12 college preparatory academy whose distance learning plan is modeled after the American International School in Japan, teachers are planning “synchronous learning” time via Zoom and students are expected to “check in” to their classes. The upper school is running the school schedule as if students were physically coming to class, according to Dean of Studies Melanie Pfingsten.

“For us, the majority of our households have internet,” she said. “In public schools, there’s different needs there.”

Limited Internet Access

But many Hawaii public school students live in remote areas where broadband connectivity isn’t available. Nearly half of all students are from economically disadvantaged households, and at least 3,600 are considered homeless.

“We are of course very concerned that the inequity within our education system is yet greater during this pandemic,” said Deborah Bond-Upson, who sits on the board of Parents for Public Schools Hawaii.

“Those with the least connectivity — poorest or no internet connections and a lack of devices — are less able to speak up,” Upson said.

The DOE is working to get devices, like Chromebooks, into the hands of families who need them the most, according to spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers.

“This need is determined on a school by school basis as administrators and teachers know what works best to support their students,” she said via email. That effort may include transferring extra devices from one office to another, she added.

To help more households get connected, Spectrum and Hawaiian Telcom are offering two months of free internet to families with school-age children who don’t currently have any service. A Hawaiian Telcom spokeswoman could not provide data on how many families have so far taken advantage of this offer, but said the response has been strong.

Momilani Elementary Tech Lab class instructor/teacher Shane Asselstine class in full swing working thru their assignments in class.
Students attended a tech lab at Momilani Elementary in 2017. Not all DOE students receive a laptop or Chromebook during the year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to 2017 figures from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, roughly 15% of Hawaii households, or 69,600, lacked internet access, with this gap most prevalent among low-income households.

Kanoelani Elementary, bordering the communities of Waipahu and Mililani, was already a one-to-one school before the pandemic — meaning all students receive a computer for use throughout the school year.

Each grade level is creating a website to relay its distance learning plan, according to Principal Stacie Kunihisa. All students will get lessons in core subjects like reading, writing and math but also extension activities devised by the physical education teacher or suggested readings by the librarian. 

“The positive coming out of this is teachers are really having to stretch and be creative on how to offer different things to kids,” Kunihisa said.

Diana Oshiro, principal at Myron B. Thompson Academy, a public charter school that uses a blended virtual and in-person learning model, suggests schools survey what students’ technological needs are during this time and adapt accordingly.

“You’re going to have kids who have absolutely nothing. How do you deal with them?” Oshiro said. “You look at instruction that is pretty generic and can deliver without difficulty.”

Rather than fashioning new ways to distribute assignments or introducing a ton of new technology, Oshiro advised teachers to work with what might already be familiar.

“Start building with what you already have in the schools. Start to embellish and populate them with other ways you can use those tools that exist,” she said.

Rose, the Ilima Intermediate teacher, said she’s worried about equity issues that are cropping up.

“Ideally, kids will be able to get on and continue some education — that we’re at least keeping them in a holding pattern as far as skills,” she said. “You get kids who are very dedicated, they’ll be fine. It’s the more marginalized, at-risk kids who will be a concern.”

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