Hawaii public school students will not be returning to the classroom this school year, the school superintendent announced Friday.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto affirmed her commitment to continued remote learning for the remaining instructional days until summer recess starts May 29.

“We will complete the school year in this extended learning mode. Students who are not performing on grade level have the opportunity now to work with teachers individually,” Kishimoto said during a press conference with Gov. David Ige and Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during press conference announcing pay increases for special needs teachers.
Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left, says Hawaii schools will remain closed through the end of the school year in late May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The decision by the Hawaii Department of Education to keep schools closed for the rest of the school year is in keeping with school districts around the country as the COVID-19 pandemic puts a halt to most regular daily activities.

The decision also gives roughly 179,000 students and families and 13,700 teachers some semblance of certainty moving forward. The DOE had previously said schools would be closed through April 30.

“We are happy this decision has finally been made so we can start planning and provide enrichment activities for learning and our keiki,” Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, told reporters afterward.

What this means for the rest of the school year is a continuation of the patchwork style of remote learning that has been going on throughout the district since mid-March, when schools went out on spring break and never came back.

For some students, that might mean online classes arranged through their teachers, if they can access the internet at home on a reliable device, and for others, enrichment activities through paper packets put together by teachers.

The DOE had previously announced that the fourth quarter will not count for a grade, and that course grades and GPAs will be calculated based on a student’s standing in class as of the third quarter.

Graduation requirements have been modified for an estimated 11,000 public high school seniors on track to graduate this year.

For students who are on the cusp of proficiency in a certain subject but needed the fourth quarter to cross over that hump, schools will be responsible for providing some kind of catch-up or remedial instruction, Kishimoto said.

Kishimoto on Friday couldn’t say when schools might reopen for the 2020-21 academic year. She said DOE is focused on what’s left of this school year, including graduations and summer school.

But it’s clear whenever schools do resume — the scheduled start date for fall is August 4 — the model could look quite different, something even DOH director Anderson noted on Friday.

Kishimoto said she and her team were having “conversations about different models for reopening,” including whether to stagger grades, limit the number of students in a building at the same time, and how bus transportation might work.

“We need to wait a little further until we see what’s happening in the beginning of summer months,” she said.

Kishimoto on Friday couldn’t say when schools might reopen for the 2020-21 academic year.

Earlier this week, Ige sent the state’s largest public unions, including the teachers’ union, into a frenzy with his proposal to slash state employees’ pay by 20% by May 1 to account for a projected severe budget shortfall.

Teachers, already saddled with low pay, could face furloughs or pay reductions. The superintendent did not directly respond to how she plans to protect teachers in that event but said the DOE has been in “aggressive budget tracking” mode since schools closed.

“We have been ensuring that we limit our expenditures (since) early March and are continuing to track the savings,” she said.

An internal DOE memo sent to principals earlier this week outlines more details: an immediate hiring freeze on all vacant positions, with certain exceptions, the postponement of replacement computers and elimination of subscriptions and low-priority contracted services.

The DOE is expected to receive a 20% reduction in general fund allocations, according to the memo.

Schools in the 2020-21 school year can expect a 2.4% reduction in weighted student formula funding while substitutes will no longer be paid centrally but through WSF funds, according to the memo.

“It is critical that we anticipate needing to operate with significantly less resources as we move forward,” the memo states.

The DOE is not just responsible for academic instruction but many social services as well. So far, it’s provided more than 360,000 meals to kids 18 and under through its “Grab and Go” meals service during the school closures.

Kishimoto said DOE is talking to providers like Hawaiian Telcom and Spectrum for internet service to families and that 15 liaisons to the homeless community are tracking the roughly 3,000 homeless students.

For those students whom teachers cannot reach during this time, Kishimoto said “a variety of actions” have been taken, including door knocking and other forms of outreach with nonprofit partners.

“We’re tracking those students so we can also make sure we reach every student,” she said.

The DOE also announced a new health hotline and telehealth service that will be set up by the end of the month that will connect families to a registered nurse who can answer questions about physical and mental health needs for students.

Summer school will also continue in distance-learning mode, with a focus on students from the sixth grade up to help boost their needed credits, she said.

Hawaii DOE is slated to receive $43 million in federal CARES Act funding and some of that will help support summer school, she said.

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