Oahu public school students will go to distance learning for the first four weeks of the school year that starts Aug. 17.
The announcement came from Gov. David Ige and Superintendent Christina Kishimoto Friday afternoon after the state teachers union called on government officials to move all students in the state to remote learning for the entire first quarter, which ends in October.
Kishimoto said the decision was made only for Oahu given the rising number of cases on the state’s most populous island. Health officials reported 200 cases on Oahu alone Friday. There was only one new case on a neighbor island Friday.
“I do believe this is the right approach,” Kishimoto said at an afternoon press conference. “It gives us the opportunity to see what’s happening in the larger community.”
Kishimoto said that complex area superintendents will be meeting with principals on neighbor islands early next week to finalize plans for the school year.
In the first week of school on Oahu, students will go to campus over four days to meet teachers and learn how to use some of the online learning technologies. They’ll spend the next three weeks away from campus before officials evaluate the distance learning program and number of cases in the state to see when it’s safe to return to in-person instruction.
Plans for how the school will roll that out are still being worked on by principals, Kishimoto said.
When asked why students are being asked to return to school when cases are high, the superintendent said that some students might need that time to get acclimated to the programs they’ll use during the first four weeks.
“We want to make sure when we do distance learning we do it well,” Kishimoto said.
Special needs students that need assistance can still go in person to schools.
Kishimoto said that the education department has made 139,000 devices available to students statewide if they don’t have access to a computer. The DOE has also acquired 5,000 new mobile hotspots for students who lack internet access.
She also said that students who lack internet may also use supervised “learning labs” at schools.
Calls To Move Online Through October
The Hawaii teachers union wants classes to move completely to distance learning for at least the first quarter of the school year.
Many of the plans made for school reopenings and in-person classes were made when case counts for Hawaii were lower. The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s announcement Friday morning came as state health officials reported 200 new cases of COVID-19 on Oahu and one case on Maui, plus two more deaths.
“Hawaii can no longer pretend we are not in the middle of a pandemic and that somehow our keiki and teachers are impervious to the virus,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said during a morning press conference.
The teachers union led a strong push to give school administrators and instructors more time to prepare for a return to campus. The Hawaii Board of Education on July 30 voted to push the start of the school year back to Aug. 17.
Students were originally set to go back to school Wednesday.
Rosenlee called on Ige and the state BOE to act quickly so that teachers have time to prepare to conduct classes remotely.
Rosenlee says he hopes the BOE could call a meeting next week to take up HSTA’s proposal.
Union leaders also called on the Department of Health to release metrics for when schools can safely reopen, and likewise, when schools should be shut down.
On Friday, Ige said that state officials are still working on some of those metrics and trigger points.
But Ige also said that shutting a school down is a complex decision, and that there are no specific metrics the state could use to determine that because the state is not conducting random coronavirus testing in schools.
“We do have guidelines. We are informed on when a staff member is positive,” Ige said. “We contact trace. We identify those that might have been exposed and conduct testing of those individuals.”
While the DOH promised to release more data on the pandemic, there’s been little talk from government officials on where exactly the state is on a matrix that shows what the public response should be to specific levels of threat posed by the virus.
Rosenlee said teachers have been getting training in distance learning as well as preparing to start the school year with in-person classes.
The union is not likely to ask state officials to push the start of the school year back again.
“There’s not a lot of time for that,” Rosenlee said.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell