Hawaii’s public school students are scheduled to start the 2020-21 school year in a month — the first time many of them will have set foot on their campuses since the middle of March, when the coronavirus shut school facilities down.

But how many days a week they are on campus, and just what their school day might encompass will depend largely on their individual school, age, grade level, school size and whether or not they are classified as a vulnerable student.

The Hawaii Department of Education released a school reopening plan on Thursday that provides health and safety requirements, as well as expectations around things like attendance and the number of total instructional days.

But it largely gives the state’s 257 DOE-operated campuses autonomy in terms of choosing whether students will be on campus full time or whether they will opt for a different school model that combines in-person and distance learning.


Christina Kishimoto, DOE, school, Kapolei Middle School, superintendent
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto spoke to reporters in a Kapolei Middle School classroom Thursday set up to demonstrate social distancing between desks. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2020

Some students might be in a classroom just two days a week on a rotational basis with their peers. The other three days would be spent at home, with instruction delivered remotely.

Students with additional needs, such as low-income students, English language learners, homeless and students with disabilities, might come to campus four or five days a week.

The DOE plan emphasizes that face to face learning should be prioritized for the state’s youngest kids — those in pre-kindergarten through second grade, as well as those who are classified as vulnerable.

“We’re not just answering to instructional, academic design, we’re answering to a state that relies heavily on its public school system as a safety net for kids,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said Thursday.

All 257 schools must choose an instructional model based on a broad DOE menu of options by Wednesday.

The DOE estimates the total cost of technology it needs to adjust to virtual learning at $58 million.

‘We’re Prepared’

The DOE’s reopening framework offers additional health and safety guidance.

All students and adults must wear a face mask or face covering outside the classroom — with exceptions given to those with medical conditions — but it’s not required inside the classroom.

“Facial recognition and expressions are very important social cues in a child’s development,” states the DOE plan. “A classroom full of mask-wearing students may cause unhealthy anxiety for students.”

All school facilities must be cleaned daily and high-touch areas like doorknobs, water fountains, desks and chairs should be disinfected throughout the day.

Paper towels and disinfectant inside the Kaneohe Elementary School cafeteria summer school opened during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
The DOE’S reopening plan emphasizes regular disinfecting of high-touch surfaces. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

As agreed to with the teachers union, the first nine days of the 2020-21 school year will be half-days.

The first part of those days will be devoted to assessing students’ learning needs and doing reviews.

The second half of the day will give teachers a chance to review those assessments, share results with colleagues and do lesson planning.

Schools are supposed to provide 180 days of instruction, whether that is delivered in person or virtually.

Schools are also required to take daily attendance of students, which will be coordinated through school management systems like Infinite Campus or Google Classroom.

The DOE’s school food services branch is working with school leaders to develop a meal plan, including whether students are allowed to eat in the cafeteria with space in between seats, in the classroom, or doing a grab-and-go option.

With more than 30,000 students relying on a school bus to get to school, the DOE has no plans to reduce its fleet of buses, said Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent for the Office of Facilities and Operations.

There will be no reduction in the number of students allowed on a school bus, since the “high back” bus seats provide enough distance row to row, he said, but seating will be limited to two kids per row, not the usual three. Students and the driver will also be required to wear face masks.

Randall Tanaka, DOE, Facilities, school, Kapolei Middle School
Randall Tanaka, DOE assistant superintendent in charge of facilities and operations, demonstrates how students will be spaced out when classes resume in August. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2020

Kapolei Middle School, home to about 1,100 students, has already chosen an instructional model that divides its students into two groups. Each group will come to campus twice a week, with teachers reporting to campus all five days of the week.

There will still be five days of instruction, said Principal Richard Fajardo, since the kids who are not in the physical classroom will be learning from home. It won’t be live, face to face instruction, he said, but teachers will issue pre-planned assignments and expect their students to complete them by the end of the day.

The school’s most vulnerable students will come to campus more frequently, he said.

Fajardo said he’s also working with the other schools in his complex area to coordinate how the students are divided up into groups based on when siblings at other schools are going into the physical classroom.

“It is aligned to the student,” he said of Kapolei Middle’s model. “It takes a lot of collaboration with principals. This is something we need to do as a community.”

One lingering question is what working parents will do when their kids are not physically in school and they have to provide child care.

“We’re trying to provide as much modification as possible. Until we can fully reopen, there will be these kinds of challenges,” Kishimoto said.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee center during press conference held on 22 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee wants schools to ensure desks are at least six feet apart. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During a virtual press conference with reporters Thursday, Hawaii State Teachers Association leaders said that about 40% of their 13,500 teachers have school-age children.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the union unsuccessfully fought for a clause in the reopening contract that would have allowed teachers’ kids to report to campus five days a week, under the same priority as vulnerable students.

The HSTA also is taking issue with the DOE’s directive that students can sit 3 feet apart when facing in the same direction in a classroom, as opposed to the 6 feet that has been recommended in other public spaces.

“Why is 6 feet required at Costco and restaurants, but for teachers and students, it’s only 3 feet?” Rosenlee said. “This is not OK. The same rules that apply to the public should apply to our schools. Teachers are not sacrificial lambs in the desire to open up our schools.”

He called for teachers to “inundate” the state Board of Education ahead of its July 9 meeting with demands that student desks be placed at least 6 feet apart.

The 2020-21 school year begins Aug. 4 for students while teachers are required to report on July 29.

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