Danny De Gracia: Let's Use The COVID-19 Crisis To Improve Hawaii's Schools - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

The Hawaii Department of Education, in planning to reopen schools, should leverage COVID-19 preparations as a means to improve public campuses and present students with cleaner, healthier, even newer facilities to study in.

Last week, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto published a letter to parents which specifically addressed the matter of “children physically returning to campuses” and spoke of how department staff were “relying on the expertise of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s Department of Health to inform our policies and procedures.”

Those changes are already beginning to emerge.

A guidance statement recently issued by the HIDOE for reopening schools includes recommendations that cover everything from the expected physical distancing and face coverings to additional mentions of increasing ventilation by opening windows, deterring infection by stocking restrooms, and even grouping students with the same staff.

While it is clear that these announcements are meant to instill a sense of public confidence that Hawaii is safely transitioning to a “new normal” we ought to go the extra mile for students and renovate schools to make them feel like they are coming back to a better school than the one they left behind prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just like many state office buildings, our public schools are extremely old and many of them offer appearances that look extremely run down.

Washington Middle School posted signs for students and parents coming to pick up homework during COVID-19 closures. Schools are grappling with how students can return to classes safely. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Though the last time I attended a DOE school was in 1985, as an adult I often find myself going to various campuses around the island for neighborhood boards, Read To Me sessions or other events, and it seems as though many of these places still look the same way they did when I was in school.

Worse yet, some of the interior spaces in these older schools look absolutely atrocious. When I did election training at a certain elementary school in Honolulu a few years ago, I was particularly horrified at the unsanitary conditions of the boys’ restroom.

Now yes, I do get it that public schools take a lot of wear and tear, and that facility upkeep, let alone renovation, is not cheap. But from a leadership perspective, if you’re faced with a pandemic and you are working on bringing students back to a physical campus, wouldn’t it make sense to set an example by doing a little cleanup and restoration to improve the return experience?

It’s one thing to set best practices and put extra soap in the bathroom and a bottle of hand sanitizer in the administration area. It’s another thing to say, “let’s make these schools look and feel safer, cleaner, and healthier.”

COVID-19’s biggest legacy for public facilities will probably be the fact that the public will expect greater vigilance in maintaining sanitation. “Clean” however should not just include the practice of disinfecting surfaces, but from a psychological perspective, it should also include visual aesthetics.

Better For Mental Health

If I were making recommendations to the DOE, the first thing I would suggest is that all run down, damaged or unsightly classrooms — and especially bathrooms — should be immediately repaired or renovated. Having frayed or rotting doors, beat up toilets, dingy-looking floors or other unsightly appearances in any of our public schools – given the amount we already pay for them – is completely unacceptable and should be changed as part of the preparations for returning to school.

Some of the questions the DOE might consider would be: When was the last time floors or carpets were thoroughly cleaned or replaced, since this is an issue for students with asthma? How frequently have the water filters been replaced in drinking fountains, as this is a public health issue? How often are air quality studies conducted?

If you were a student returning to a public school after being at home due to COVID-19 concerns, imagine what it would be like to come back to a campus with a “new building smell” that has not only been redesigned to help with physical distancing and infection control, but looks the part of a fresh, high-end educational facility.

Campbell High School portable classrooms one of 44 portable structures on the campus of the largest student populations in the state of Hawaii.
The DOE will need to prepare classrooms — including portable classrooms like these at Campbell High School — to receive students when schools reopen. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

How much confidence do you think it would add to students coming back to see everything a little bit cleaner, a little bit newer, and overall, a little bit better aesthetically?

There’s a reason why in higher education, the top colleges invest so much in beautiful-looking campuses as a means for recruiting; people want to go to school someplace that makes them feel good and inspires pride.

I wholeheartedly believe that both students and teachers alike not only deserve to have the best facilities, but that they will ultimately perform better when these campuses are kept in good condition.

Numerous studies show that cleanliness has positive benefits for mental health and overall cognitive performance. This is something we should be especially sensitive to, considering how high depression is among local students.

One thing that the state of Hawaii needs to work on as a long-term legacy is not just how we do things, but how we present things. That is a vital part of showing leadership by example to both taxpayers and the rest of the country.

COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to make aggressive changes because we care about preventing infection, but perhaps we should also use it as an opportunity to set a new standard for cleanliness and leadership by example.

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.

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

Hawaii's public school system needs a whole lot more than cosmetic improvements.  It needs structural reform.

sleepingdog · 2 years ago

I've been told that repairs and maintenance at HIDOE schools are so incredibly slow and expensive because by law they can only be done by unionized workers. Could someone please comment on this?

Chiquita · 2 years ago

Fantastic idea- now is the time to get these things done! I really hope some schools have been doing some of the renovations throughout the lockdown. However, I wonder if the slow-moving bureaucracy of the DOE facilities section will affect this idea. I remember how back in the 90s my teacher's clock was broken and she said she had put in the request to have it fixed three years prior.  She had given up on the request and bought her own but left the state issued clock hanging there. 

Scout · 2 years ago

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