Juggling their own work while helping kids out with schoolwork. Having their toddlers crawl onto their laps during video meetings. Trying to keep a consistent routine so their kids are mentally and physically engaged throughout the day.

These are just a few of the things parents around Hawaii are experiencing while the coronavirus crisis keeps schools closed until some unknown date in the future.

“I start to wonder, how long is this going to go on and how much is she really missing out on?” said Erica Yamauchi, mother to a preschooler and second grader at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School. “As a parent, we’re all kind of worried about that.”

Brendan Punu, 5th grader at Punahou School, remote learning with his family in Makawao, Maui during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Father Brand Punu
Brendan Punu, a fifth grader at Punahou School, works on class assignments with his father, Brad Punu, in Makawao, Maui. Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2020

With schools closed, parents are the new at-home teacher, counselor, coach, cheerleader and tech support. The mass disruption to traditional schooling is also exposing how different at-home learning and enrichment is for kids, depending on their home situation, access to resources and level of parental involvement.

“It can be a challenge making their schoolwork interesting and getting each task for the day done,” said Cassandra Jim, whose children are in kindergarten and second grade at Kauluwela Elementary. “Some days they’re just not feeling it. Some days I get crocodile tears. Some days are just complete rejection.”

Hawaii public schools are now closed through the rest of the school year, which ends May 28. There is no telling if they will be on track to reopen as scheduled come August given the changing COVID-19 situation.

That means more of a strain on parents.

“It’s not like I can hand them their schoolwork, leave for a few minutes, and expect them to finish it on their own,” said Jim. “Many times I want to join in their laziness and nap this pandemic away, but I try my best not to give in and push myself to help them get into that same mentality they would have when they’re at school.”

Yamauchi, who works in children’s mental health at the state Department of Health and also teaches at University of Hawaii, says her daughter is an independent learner who can be challenged with more reading. But subjects like math are a little dicier.

“If I knew for sure she’d go back to school in August, I’d feel more confident she’d catch up,” she said. “I keep thinking, I just need to get to May, but even May doesn’t seem like the light at the end of the tunnel.”

A Huge Disruption

More than 179,000 kids in Hawaii’s public schools and 34,800 kids in private schools have been out of classrooms since roughly mid-March.

The Hawaii Department of Education has encouraged families to use this time for enrichment activities due to the wide disparity in technological and Internet access for scores of kids. Work that is assigned from teachers isn’t graded. Private schools have come up with distance learning plans that build off of blended virtual systems already in place.

The needs here are different household to household. In a state as economically stratified as Hawaii’s, schoolwork may take a backseat to more basic needs during this time of widespread disruption.

In some places, making sure parents are properly informed — let alone able to help their kids with schoolwork — is a priority.

Waipahu Elementary School Vice Principal James Suster stands in front of attendance board.
Waipahu Elementary School Vice Principal James Suster says communicating with parents is a big challenge during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At Waipahu Elementary, a school with a large immigrant population that has traditionally relied on home visits to encourage kids to keep coming to school, Vice Principal James Suster said communication with parents is one of the biggest challenges during the shutdown. While many schools send emails, many of his parents rely on phone calls.

“Some ask, when is school starting again?” he said. “They have no clue of what’s going on, even in the news. They’ll ask, can I come in to pick up stuff? You can tell with these phone calls, they haven’t been able to access any (new information).”

Keeping up with schoolwork can be difficult regardless of the circumstances.

Brad Punu felt panic in late March as his sons’ private schools were preparing to move to distance learning.

The Oahu resident had the set-up and resources to support his sons’ learning, such as iPads, home computers, television and high-speed internet. He had access to the state public library’s electronic book collection, and subscriptions to popular online education resources like Epic! and DreamBox.

But what he didn’t have was the years of training and know-how that go into teaching.

“I don’t feel prepared to take on the amount of educational support that will be required of me,” Punu said at the time. “If being a teacher was my aptitude, I would have been a teacher.”

Brendan Punu, 5th grader at Punahou School, remote learning with his family in Makawao during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Maui.
Brendan Punu, a fifth grader at Punahou School, studies at home in Makawao during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2020

Punu’s family is currently sheltering in place at his mother in law’s home on Maui, where there’s more room to move about. A plastic folding table serves as a desk for his older son, a fifth grader at Punahou. His younger son is a fourth grader at Hanahauoli School.

He jokes that he and his wife — who both work in the clean energy sector and can work remotely — serve as his son’s “help desk” when technical difficulties arise.

Each morning, his sons will check in to their classrooms online, video conference with their teachers and classmates, work on assignments and spend afternoons doing optional assignments, playing ball in the yard or helping out their grandma with her handicraft art. 

“We’re just fortunate that we have technology, that we have some (computer) literacy, connectivity: these are all the things you take for granted,” Punu said.

Meeting Individual Needs

Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, a nonprofit that fosters family and community engagement on behalf of public schools, recently conducted a survey of families on how they’re weathering the coronavirus-spurred interruption to their kids’ education.

The survey asked questions about the ease of online learning and paper packets, whether they owned the requisite tech devices and concerns about their children falling behind.

Out of the several dozen responses received, one-third of parents said not seeing other children and their teacher regularly was “a serious problem for my child emotionally,” according to results shared with Civil Beat.

It’s a concern felt by Yamauchi, whose toddler will sometimes crawl onto her lap as she’s leading a virtual discussion with her UH students from home.

“They need more hands-on and touch,” Yamauchi said. “I kind of worry more with her about that (lack of preschool interaction), when they blossom and make friends.”

Parents of kids with special needs who require additional assistance at school are also in a tough spot.

Mary Cadiz, an Ewa Beach resident, has a son in kindergarten at Barbers Point Elementary who has an IEP, or individualized education program. At school, he is in an inclusion classroom with a special education teacher who checks in on him. At home, he would also receive therapy from an Applied Behavior Analysis provider.

To help her son at home, Cadiz says she tries to stay hyper-organized. She keeps a binder with all his paperwork and jots down notes on his behaviors, what he needs help on and how he can improve.

Other parents are setting firm boundaries like cutting schoolwork off by a certain time to keep both themselves and their kids sane.

Stephanie Han cut a deal with her son, who is in the seventh grade at Kaimuki Middle, so that there is no school beyond noon. He completes his assignments in the morning and in the afternoon takes up other activities like cooking, cleaning the house and taking photos.

“This is not something I’d like to commit to again, it’s too difficult,” she said wryly.

Jim, the Kauluwela Elementary parent, was told by her daughters’ teachers to hold onto their schoolwork so they can turn it in when school resumes. But she’s not optimistic that will happen anytime soon: Her second grader’s teacher has already given her a farewell gift.

“It was so sweet and heart-touching of her,” she said, “but also grim.”

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