The COVID-19 pandemic has given the state school system a novel opportunity to really turn the page, some Hawaii educators say.

All 293 Hawaii Department of Education campuses have been shut down for the rest of the school year, impacting traditional learning for nearly 180,000 K-12 students. This unprecedented time of long-term school closures has forced many Hawaii educators to shift rapidly to new modes of instruction and contact with students and parents.

The sudden disruption to regular schooling that began in mid-March and will continue indefinitely has also spawned a reawakening among some teachers as far as existing systems and the future of education delivery in Hawaii.

What will schools look like? What should the schools look like? Those are among the questions that are emerging.

Keolu Elementary in Kailua is one of 293 DOE campuses impacted by closures for the rest of the school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Juan Espinal, a fifth grade teacher at Konawaena Elementary on the Big Island, used a Charles Dickens phrase to describe this period during a recent video chat with fellow educators:

It reflects both “the best of times” and “the worst of times,” he said, referring in the former to a greater sense of community, and in the latter to the health and emotional trauma and economic challenges posed by the pandemic.

“This is a moment of reckoning for all our habits,” Espinal said. “It’s jettisoned schools into the 21st century in a way they never ever imagined they’d be in.”

Espinal, a New York native and eight-year DOE veteran, said in an interview he envisions smaller class sizes, more spacious learning environments, and a higher premium on things like hydroponics or classrooms where every public school student is given a device to access remote learning.

“Public schools have been stuck,” he said. “Now, they have been completely replanted and when you replant something, new things grow, old things die off and that’s what’s happening here.”

Other educators say this not only extends to core instruction, but things like social and emotional support for students. The DOE can begin by adapting new models of trauma-informed care, said school psychologist Leslie Baunach.

“Education to me is not just four walls and academics, it’s the social, emotional, behavioral component, it is the whole child,” she said. “How can we utilize this as an opportunity rather than a tragedy to make those positive changes happen?”

Bill Chen, academic coach at Kahakai Elementary on the Big Island, said the schools that are and will be successful once Hawaii emerges from this shutdown are those that can provide wraparound support services to students, including mental health counseling.

“When I look at the schools that are doing well, they are schools that have those kinds of services for students. They have connections with community partnerships and are leveraging those to support their students,” he said.

“How can we utilize this as an opportunity rather than a tragedy to make those positive changes happen?” — School psychologist Leslie Baunach

Espinal said he’s encouraged by recognition of the importance of teachers, as many parents juggle their own work with teaching kids at home.

But it’s difficult to say how coronavirus will shape the teacher workforce in Hawaii, particularly in light of Gov. David Ige’s recently floated proposal to cut teacher pay by 20%.

Dana Shishido, a 30-year veteran of DOE who lived through “Furlough Fridays” during the recession a decade ago, said she was planning to work another seven years pre-coronavirus. She’s now considering retirement within two years.

“We have an annual teacher shortage of 1,000,” she said. “The state should consider this to prevent the shortage from increasing. Younger/newer teachers may choose to make career changes. Those from mainland states may choose to move back.”

Espinal, of the Big Island, said it’s his dream to see every classroom position filled, with “teachers lining up at the door to apply for your job,” with class sizes of no more than 10 to 15 kids, once the dust settles on the global health crisis.

“We kind of dug this hole ourselves,” he said of the anticipated, ongoing teacher shortage. “We have a hard time adapting because we didn’t make it an attractive job for people in the first place. We didn’t have any new innovation coming in.”

Schools needed to be better before coronavirus, he said.

“Now is the time to hire people, get (them) involved, really get that work going. We know we have to give enrichment opportunities and we know we have to rebuild schools,” he added.

Regardless what changes ensue, it’s clear the learning environment will look dramatically different. The Washington Post on Monday reported a whole slate of proposed changes by school districts around the country when schools do re-open, including staggered school days, temperature readings at building entrances, lunch inside classrooms or teachers roving classroom to classroom instead of students.

White House officials on Monday also issued interim guidance on the reopening of schools, breaking it up into three phases that include, among other things, desks spaced 6 feet apart, limited field trips or extra-curricular activities and staggered drop-offs and pick-ups.

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