“Good morning, how you feeling today?” Ikaika Plunkett, the vice principal of Kaneohe Elementary, cheerfully asked as he approached a vehicle that stopped by the front entrance of the school Friday morning.

Holding a small no-contact infrared digital thermometer, Plunkett donned a face mask. Then he took a student’s temperature through the open back window of the car before giving him the all clear.

The boy, in a face mask and his backpack flung over his shoulders, stepped out of the car and headed toward the open doors of the cafeteria several steps away.

“Howzit guys! Don’t forget to wash your hands!” the vice principal reminded some other kids who walked toward the entrance after being screened by two colleagues — Principal Derek Minakami and the summer school coordinator, Diane Higa.

Kaneohe Elementary School cafeteria summer school with socially distanced chairs during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Students participating in Kaneohe Elementary’s summer learning hub sit and wait in orderly rows in the morning to be escorted to their respective classrooms each day. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The students, several days into summer school, by now knew the drill: head straight to a large outdoor sink to wash their hands before taking their seat in folding chairs in designated rows in the cafeteria, with each chair spaced 6-plus feet apart.

Welcome to the new reality of morning protocol in Hawaii schools in the COVID-19 era: on-site temperature checks, hand-washing upon arrival on campus, staged waiting areas before heading to respective classrooms and face masks that limit a child’s spontaneous conversation.

Social Distancing Guidelines

As many Hawaii Department of Education schools began in-person summer instruction last week to select groups of students, they also embarked on a trial run of what a return to on-campus instruction might look like next school year on a larger scale.

It’s no simple task for the school administrators spread across the 256 DOE schools plus 37 public charters to figure out a way to welcome hundreds of children back to campus when health and DOE guidelines recommend desks spaced 3 to 6 feet apart or teacher-student ratios that are about a quarter of what is typical.

There is no definitive guidance yet from DOE on what the new school year will look like come Aug. 4, the first day back of the new calendar year. But Christina Kishimoto, superintendent of schools, has expressed an inclination toward in-person instruction for all the elementary schools and a mix of in-person and remote instruction for secondary students.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school students wash their hands before school starts during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Kaneohe Elementary students must wash their hands at a large outdoor basin upon arriving. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

For Minakami, Kaneohe Elementary’s principal, the first day of summer school on June 1 — an enrichment program to narrow the gap in reading, writing and math skills for the school’s most struggling students — was both exhilarating and nerve wracking.

It had been the first time the Windward Oahu school welcomed back students into the school since the coronavirus shut the facility down in mid-March.

“That first day was very exciting, it was emotional. But you felt a nervousness you don’t normally feel at the beginning of school,” Minakami said.

“Families and employees are depending on you to make sure things are well planned out and that we have every contingency planned for.”

That means face shields and face masks, if they don’t bring their own, for the teachers; class sizes of eight students — half that for incoming kindergarteners; required use of face masks both inside and outside the classroom for students; and rooms with empty desks stacked in the back to clear room for more socially distanced desks.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school teacher Jolyn Yoneshige gestures with faceshield on during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Kaneohe Elementary teacher Jolyn Yoneshige wears a face shield as she addresses her class of incoming first graders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

When it comes to the temperature checks of the kids, anything at or above 99 degrees is an automatic no-go.

“We test it one more time to be sure and if it’s 99 degrees again, then we say, they cannot attend for the day,” said Plunkett. “We want them to be symptom free for 24 hours.”

The same rule applies to staff, who get screened at the office, where panes of plexiglass have been set up to separate the front desk staff from visitors.

A Strange Quiet

During a recent visit to the school campus, it’s clear some things just won’t ever go back to normal in this new climate. One example is the absence of a chorus of voices, especially in usually rowdy spaces like the cafeteria, where summer school students wearing masks waited quietly Friday in individual chairs before being escorted to class.

“Before (the pandemic), it was deafening. You can hear them from the bottom of campus,” Minakami said with a mix of amusement and wistfulness.

Instead, pop music played over the stereo system.

He noted that the students who attend the school are “really well behaved,” so that when they do have time to talk and socialize with each other, “they’re boisterous.”

Kaneohe Elementary is one of many Hawaii DOE schools serving as a summer learning hub for select students.

Classes began the first week of June and go until July 2. Propped by federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds, the program is geared to students who may have struggled the most with remote learning last quarter or could use the catch-up, including students who receive special education but are not eligible for an extended school year.

The DOE communications office said Monday a total count of students participating in the summer learning hubs across the state would not be available until early next week.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school student raises her hand in class during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
A summer school student in Corrine Moriwake’s class of incoming third and fourth graders raises her hand to answer a question about a reading passage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Capacity is limited: Kaneohe, a popular elementary school whose regular student body count is 630, can only offer six summer classrooms of eight students each, for a total enrollment of 48.

It reached out to roughly 90 students to invite them into the summer enrichment program, and is now up to around 40, just several seats shy of capacity.

The students come to school five days a week from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., plus a short break for recess at 9:15.

“For the kids who couldn’t get online, this is a good relief for them and their parents,” Minakami said.

Mixture Of Virtual And On-Site Learning

At Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Elementary and Intermediate, a K-8 school located outside Hilo on Hawaii island, the summer learning hub is geared mostly toward incoming middle schoolers and English language learners, plus students who were behind last quarter or needed extra support, said Lindsay Miyashiro, the vice principal.

The program there is a mix of virtual and on-site. Students have one day of face-to-face instruction with a teacher, then switch to online training through Google Classroom or Google Meet.

So far, 25 students are participating, out of a total capacity of 32, with four teachers on board. The program started June 1 and will run through mid-July, said Miyashiro.

Blue tape marks social distancing inside a classroom at Kaneohe Elementary School summer school during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Blue tape marks where students should sit on the carpet for social distancing inside Jolyn Yoneshige’s classroom. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The students focus on core subjects like reading, writing, math and social studies. Since the school is also a DOE summer feeding site, kids can also get breakfast and lunch at the school.

“We are very family oriented and tight knit,” she said of the school. “During this time of school closure, our students have really missed being on campus because this is their second home.”

Summer school participants reflect only a fraction of their schools’ total student enrollment, however, and the challenge is what schools will need to do to accommodate everyone by early August.

Minakami is making small adjustments to prepare. He put in a purchase order for 350 more computers so he could turn the school into a “1 to 1” school. He’s thinking of having half the students come in for in-person instruction with the other half doing remote schooling come August.

He’s been trying to figure out how the school can better utilize its sprawling outdoor areas.

“We’ve been making small adjustments here and there, as we learn more and experience more,” he said of this period of summer enrichment. “It’s really helping us formulate that plan for when everyone returns.”

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