Top of the school supply list this year is a computer and internet connection for thousands of students in Hawaii who will be learning remotely due to the pandemic.

But as classes begin Monday across state Department of Education schools, the question is whether every student will have access to these critical tools for learning.

Some of the devices the DOE ordered are not here yet due to a national supply chain logjam and others still need to be distributed. Then there is the issue of getting them in the right hands.

The state Board of Education, which has been receiving record amounts of testimony, will be taking up the issue at its meeting Thursday. Administrators have told the board that schools are assessing every family for devices and connection but that in the state’s most impoverished communities, it’s still a problem.

Administrators are already raising the question of whether they will need to transfer devices among schools for loan-outs and if there is even a procedure for this, according to documents the board chair submitted ahead of this week’s meeting.

Kawananakoa Middle School electronic sign asks about Chromebook pickup during COVID-19 pandemic. August 13, 2020
A Kawananakoa Middle School sign asks about Chromebook pickup last week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii’s digital divide for students was a big issue in March, when schools first pivoted to all-remote learning to stem the spread of COVID-19. Despite pleas from lawmakers, advocates and public officials to provide more specific data on kids’ digital access, the DOE — even as of late May — floundered.

Now, with more than five months to collect data on distance learning needs, it’s still not clear if the DOE has any better handle on the capacity gap and where it’s most pronounced — or how the district is working to get devices and wireless internet hotspots to those who need them the most.

“We have some vendors saying, ‘We’re not going to be able to get you Chromebooks until next year,’” Brook Conner, the DOE’s chief information officer, told the Hawaii Broadband Hui during its weekly meetup Wednesday.

He added it was a “supply chain” issue due to high demand from school districts across the country.

In an email to Civil Beat, Conner confirmed the DOE has made two bulk purchase order requests for devices: one from the summer for 10,000 devices and a second for 12,000 devices to prepare for the fall.

He said “almost all” of the summer devices were delivered but the DOE is still waiting on 2,500 Chromebooks from the second order. There is also a third request in the works.

Conner said the devices are “targeted to schools based on enrollment of vulnerable students minus devices already available to loan by that school.”

According to the DOE, a little under half of the 179,000 students enrolled in K-12 — almost 85,000 students — qualify for free or reduced cost lunch. Another 3,600 students are considered homeless.

That’s about 88,500 students in potential need of technology assistance. Many schools in the DOE are “1 to 1,” meaning every student is loaned a computer during the school year as it is. The question is identifying and filling any shortfalls.

But devices aren’t the only issue. Students also need to be able to go online from home.

In June 5 testimony to the Board of Education, Lisa Mochizuki, a school administrator from Maui’s Wailuku Elementary, detailed the challenges of distance education from the prior school year. Though the school distributed 160 Chromebooks to students, only a handful of the school’s 650 students logged into virtual classrooms, she said.

Many students did not have enough internet bandwidth at home and English language learners, who comprise 29% of the student body, did not log on at all, she said.

“We have about 100 students whose parents do not have email addresses,” she said.

So far, the DOE has committed $12 million for the purchase of new computers and nearly $3 million — out of the total projected need of $7.2 million — for mobile hotspots.

That’s roughly a third of the $43 million the department received in federal relief funds through the CARES Act.

In her Aug. 7 announcement of a shift to all-distance learning for Oahu schools for the first four weeks of the school year, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE has distributed just under 5,000 mobile hotspots and bought an additional 11,000 hotspots.

“The issue of connectivity across the state is not necessarily a DOE responsibility but we’re faced with meeting this need now,” she said. “How do we provide equity of access to families?”

Since then, the DOE decided that neighbor island schools will also go at least the first four weeks online only.

Kauai Schools Ahead Of The Curve?

In June, when it became clear to him distance learning would still be required of students in the fall due to COVID-19, Senate President Ron Kouchi sat down with two school administrators from his Kauai district: Bill Arakaki, the outgoing complex area superintendent, and Paul Zina, who took over as superintendent July 1.

Frustrated by the lack of clear data from DOE on students’ technology needs, Kouchi asked the two men to talk to the island’s 15 DOE schools and get the necessary statistics on how many kids lacked a device or internet at home.

Kouchi said he asked them if it could be done in a week and they assured him it could.

And that’s how in seven days, the Kapaa-Kauai-Waimea school complex area, enrolling 9,381 students, got the specific data it needed to obtain grants from outside sources to purchase new equipment.

Although the schools on Kauai are largely “1 to 1” schools, the swift data collection uncovered that about 750 kids, or 8% of the total school-age population, lacked good internet access.

That’s how officials came up with an exact figure: $400,500 to provide 750 students with a cellular wireless wifi device at a cost of $534 per student and internet access for 12 months.

By June 21, seven funding partners donated to the Kauai Education Technology Pilot, including Hawaii Community Foundation ($100,000), Chan Zuckerberg Kauai Community Fund ($150,000), Bank of Hawaii Foundation ($100,000) and others.

“These are questions we were asking from the onset — what are the gaps as far as connectivity, what is the device shortage?” Kouchi said. “Funders wouldn’t put money in without understanding what they would be assisting.”

Kauai is now “ahead of the curve” as far as bridging the digital divide gap for students, Kouchi said.

In a June 26 press conference announcing the pilot, other state lawmakers spoke to the need for quick action.

“We needed a clear plan to move forward, to make sure that distance learning is more meaningful,” said Rep. Nadine Nakamura of Kauai. “We wanted to plan for the worst case scenario where students have to be at home.”

The Panorama parent surveys conducted between June 8 and June 30 show disparities across the state when it comes to household device connectivity and parents’ ease with helping their children out.

About 13,300 parents, or 41% of respondents, said there were not enough devices in their household per member. About 32,500 family members responded to the survey, so only about 1 in 5 households participated.

The DOE is soliciting another round of data collection from families on their device and connectivity needs. It was sent out July 20 and is expected to be much more comprehensive.

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