Since the Hawaii Department of Education closed schools in March and switched to distance learning to stem the spread of coronavirus, it has struggled to answer two critical questions: how many students are participating in online learning, and how many don’t have the tools or technology to access it?

It’s a question that’s been raised by Hawaii’s congressional delegation, by state lawmakers, by nonprofits and education advocates and by the DOE’s policy-making body, the state Board of Education.

The answer is still unknown.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has only provided generalities up to now, such as 80% to 95% of Hawaii’s 179,000 public school students receiving “consistent access to educational material.”

Hawaii’s DOE has distributed 12,000 loaner tech devices during the fourth quarter of the school year. But the total need for the system’s 179,000 students is not clear.

Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

But it’s not clear exactly what that means. The DOE’s own Frequently Asked Questions document says “exact numbers of students participating in enrichment activities are not currently available.”

Education advocates say it’s crucial to collect hard data to be able to have some point of reference to determine if the department is making any progress in reaching underserved kids, such as low-income kids or those in rural areas who aren’t outfitted with the same technology facilities.

“Data is an objective criteria. Without that, we don’t know where we’re starting from and we don’t know where we’re going,” said Cheri Nakamura, director of He’e Coalition, a group of stakeholders that advocates on behalf of public education.

The DOE has shared some general numbers: that 12,000 “loaner” digital devices were provided in the fourth academic quarter and that 10,000 such devices will be offered in the summer, “to help make such connectivity universal,” as it was phrased in a recent newsletter to DOE employees.

New Efforts To Collect Data

In recent days, the DOE has taken more proactive steps to collect statewide data. For instance, it began polling teachers on Monday about their hardware and software needs and their ease so far in delivering instruction online.

Another survey went out Tuesday directed at students — with those who fill it out entered into a drawing to win a free Chromebook. Another survey will go out to parents early next month.

But this effort comes nearly two months after groups like Parents for Public Schools Hawaii first began surveying families’ needs, collecting more than 220 responses as of last week, and just days before enhanced summer learning is set to begin.

During her year-end evaluation Thursday, Kishimoto told board members results from all three recipient groups would be compiled by the first week of July, when summer schooling is well underway.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

Hawaii Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has left individual schools in charge of handing out devices to students, saying there is no way that can be centralized by DOE.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

School districts all over the country are experiencing similar challenges with the sudden disruption to the regular school year.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a national education policy group, recently published a report analyzing 82 school districts’ transition to distance learning in the two months since coronavirus took hold.

At least one-third of those districts had not set consistent expectations for teachers on how to deliver “meaningful” remote instruction, while nearly half of such districts aren’t requiring teachers to provide feedback to students, the authors said in their May 15 analysis.

They hypothesized that some school districts have been slower to adapt to remote instruction due to “unclear expectations and mixed signals.”

Success Stories From The Mainland

Some of the country’s major school districts have had success laying some groundwork during the pandemic.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, home to 345,000 students and 392 schools, went into triage mode from the start. It set up six mobile device distribution centers, open daily, so parents could pick up a mobile device or swap a malfunctioning device with another. Parents could also call a telephone line to schedule a pick-up appointment.

Sacramento City Unified School District, home to 43,000 students, also posted a list of locations where students could pick up a computer and when. As of late April, the district said it handed out 25,000 devices and that “each Sac City Unified K-12 student who needed a computer will have been issued one.”

Minneapolis Public Schools, which serves 35,700 students, determined which students needed devices via survey. They also delivered mobile hotspots to families without reliable connectivity starting mid-April. After the initial rounds, the school system could report that 94% of students needing a digital device had received one.

The Hawaii DOE, the nation’s only statewide single-district school system, has left it largely up to the schools to coordinate device handout. Kishimoto has stated publicly that such efforts must start at the school level.

“There’s no way to execute that from a centralized place. Schools are the ones putting in place the device distribution,” she told reporters during an April 2 call.

During a May 7 Board of Education meeting, the superintendent reiterated that one of her earliest leadership moves was to leave this effort up to principals, to “make sure those students not connecting, that there were approaches used in each school to go after those students,” whether those were phone calls, door-to-door calls or catching kids at DOE grab-and-go meal delivery sites.

Other school districts have been quick to outfit school buses with Wi-Fi connectivity so students in underserved areas without reliable internet could get a signal in order to complete assignments.

The Austin Independent School District deployed more than 100 school buses with Wi-Fi and sent them out to rural communities.

The South Carolina Department of Education has gone a step further by creating a map showing exactly where all the free Wi-Fi hot spots around the state are located, including at school buildings or on school buses.

School Bus Waianae Valley. 18 nov 2016

Hawaii could soon see Wi-Fi outfitted on buses and other vehicles to bring connectivity to kids in rural areas.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii could soon see something similar. A joint effort led by a coalition of Hawaii teachers and the nonprofit HawaiiKidsCAN are working to bring a transient “mobile hotspot” program to the Leeward Coast of Oahu and Big Island, known as “Wifi on Wheels.”

The Hawaii DOE is also planning to deploy “mobile learning labs” in four rural areas of the state.

Other school districts are making technology data public, tracking how many more students need to be connected and being transparent about their methodology.

Highline Public Schools in Washington state, home to about 17,500 students, has mapped out the number of devices handed out by the district and where they are in use. The school district’s chief technology officer replied in a tweet the visualization was tied to devices and assignments, using a geo-visual analytic software used for school districts known as GuideK12.

Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the country that counts 734,600 students, published charts broken down by grade level showing the progression of kids who have been connected since March 20. The district is also documenting how many kids are logging in daily or weekly and how many assignments they’ve completed on a weekly basis.

Tracking Attendance Is A Key Challenge

Making sure kids who have the capability to log on to their classes are doing so has been a mixed bag around the country. The education news site Chalkbeat has reported that many districts are not formally tracking student attendance or lack any formal policy.

There are exceptions.

Starting April 6, Miami-Dade schools required every student to log into a portal to be marked “present.” Those who don’t log in get an automated phone call home by noon the next day, so parents know their child was marked “absent.”

New York City public schools are using a centralized system to track student attendance, based on a “daily meaningful interaction,” like submission of an assignment, participation in an online forum or a student or parent phone call or email with a teacher.

In Hawaii, there is no unified guidance coming from DOE in this regard. At an April 2 board of education meeting, the school superintendent was asked how she was going to ensure students would still participate in voluntary enrichment activities, which are lessons that aren’t graded.

“There’s still accountability students have,” Kishimoto responded, including “keeping in touch with your teacher and submitting whatever the teacher has designed as an instructional model to remain in good standing.”

Some people want to see more guidance.

“Data around how many students we are reaching or not reaching would be extremely helpful to inform decisions moving forward,” wrote Ryan Kusumoto, president & CEO of Parents And Children Together, in recent testimony to the education board.

“Our DOE, our teachers, are our biggest and broadest line of communication to the keiki and families across our state and can serve as a critical lifeline during these trying times.”

Want more information on COVID-19 in Hawaii? You can read all of Civil Beat’s coronavirus coverage, find answers to frequently asked questions or sign up for email newsletter updates — all for free. And check out pictures of how community groups and volunteers have been helping out in our Community Scrapbook.

Before you go . . .

Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.

The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author