If there is one word that encapsulates the tough decisions facing parents this month as the new school year begins, it’s sacrifice.
Sacrifice in work hours as they assist with online learning at home. Sacrifice in peace of mind if they’re not totally comfortable sending their kids back to campus but will, due to their jobs. Sacrifice in forgoing quality time with family and friends to preserve a “bubble” to keep the greater school community safe, too.
And while there’s less variability now with most public schools turning to all-distance models until mid-September, Honolulu resident Melyssa Ching-Goya is familiar with the tough choices that inevitably await.
A speech pathologist of 18 years at a Hawaii Department of Education school, Ching-Goya grappled with the decision of keeping her 8-year-old daughter in her DOE school in the Punchbowl area, when it was offering a hybrid plan, or opting to homeschool her this year.
She was not comfortable sending her child back into the school — and still isn’t, even to get trained to use online platforms — amid the surge of coronavirus cases in Hawaii and growing body of research that younger kids can exhibit milder symptoms of COVID-19 but still spread the virus.
Saturday marked another high number of new cases, 284, mostly on Oahu, bringing the state cumulative total to 4,825. The test positivity rate has jumped from about 1% in June to 6.2% in the last 7-day average, causing experts to cast Hawaii as being in a “very dire situation.”
There’s also been recent data for cases among minors. On July 30, the state Department of Health said of the 124 new cases that day, 32, or 25%, were among children under 18.
The return of teachers to campuses since the end of July, moreover, has caused new coronavirus cases at several schools, the teachers union said Tuesday, prompting the DOE to release a new weekly case count tally per complex area on its website Saturday.
Before the COVID-19 situation spiraled downward in Hawaii, Ching-Goya’s daughter’s school didn’t offer an all-distance plan, causing her to consider homeschooling. With the new online option, Ching-Goya decided to keep her daughter in the school since she can now do all her schoolwork remotely.
“What’s right for one kid, may not be right for another,” she said. “My husband and I are completely aware of the choices we made. We trust the school, but we don’t know that all parents have the same priorities that we do.”
For the past five months, the couple has not seen their extended family, even those on island. They wear masks when they go out. And though their son, who is in a private preschool, has a classmate who lives on the floor below theirs, the boys do not play together and only see each other at school.
“Because I will be going back to work, we have to create new bubbles with hope that the bubbles will be as safe as the ones we have made,” said Ching-Goya.
Given the record-high case counts in Hawaii, some Oahu private schools, including Punahou and Iolani, will start with all-distance learning until at least mid-September. Kamehameha Schools’ Oahu campus is all-remote until October’s fall break while its Maui and Big Island campuses pivoted to all-distance last week.
If Hawaii manages to control the spread of new cases and classrooms gradually reopen, some families will have the luxury to decide to keep their students at home or pursue alternative models like pandemic learning pods. But many others will not. Essential workers, low-income households, single parents, especially, will have their hands tied.
Do they also live in an area with widespread community transmission? Of what quality is their kid’s school’s all-distance learning plan? How much can they trust other households to be exercising social distancing outside the school? Those kinds of questions may dictate their decisions, as well.
Ching-Goya’s 4-year-old son has been back at his private preschool for nearly two months.
The school takes temperature checks and regularly asks parents about possible COVID-19 exposure in their households. Her son’s classroom has created a bubble where they do not interact with other classrooms and, so far, “all seems to be going well,” she said.
“Even before the pandemic, the school took illness in the classroom very seriously,” Ching-Goya said. “Do we have more trust in my son’s preschool because we are paying for his education? Yes. My daughter’s public school is a different story.”
John Johnson, a Honolulu resident, had his two children enrolled in the Summer Fun program run through the City and County of Honolulu when virus case counts in the state were still low. He and his wife agreed to pull them out of the program if the case counts surpassed 30 two days in a row.
When that happened, that’s exactly what they did.
When his kids’ school opted for a hybrid model where students were on campus part of the week but doing distance learning the rest of the time, he, even as of a month ago, strongly hesitated about sending them back.
“Right now, with the numbers spiking like they are, it makes us think this is not the best time,” he said. “There’s been a host of things (to consider), like what about kids outside the bubble and on the bus?”
With all DOE schools, except those on Molokai and Hana High & Elementary on Maui, now pivoting to all-online learning through at least Sept. 14, schools are scrambling to put together distance plans and train their teachers.
Many are turning to an online curriculum known as Acellus Learning Accelerator.
Some who have experience with it are not thrilled by the option. Pukalani Elementary teacher Miriam Clarke, at a recent Hawaii Board of Education meeting, dismissed the curriculum as a mechanism for “out of state teachers to teach in our classrooms.”
“Our schools will be splintered into two entities,” Clarke said in her testimony. “One that teaches Hawaii standard curriculum and one that uses non-evidence based curriculum like (Arizona State University) and Acellus. Why are we pocketing money into these out of state schools?”
Acellus is considered a credit recovery program for kids not meeting proficiency in certain subjects. According to the Hawaii DOE, it is “a self-paced program that utilizes video-based lessons with cutting-edge technology.”
In a recent budget blueprint, the DOE said it needs an additional $2.5 million to set up a new distance learning platform for K-5 students through Arizona State.
Some Hawaii DOE administrators are aware that keeping kids away from campuses will be a strain on parents.
“I know people are anxious but as a public school, we still have to think about parents that are first responders. They need to have their kids in school,” said Kaneohe Elementary principal Derek Minakami. Given the circumstances, his school will start Monday with a virtual orientation and be all-distance for at least the first month.
Kaneohe Elementary won’t be using Acellus, but a distance curriculum that incorporates place-based and cultural learning, like learning from gardens, plants native to Hawaii, fish ponds — kids’ own backyards, he said.
“There’s a lot of ways in which we can engage our students in still making it personal, but it doesn’t have to be an off the shelf-produced experience,” he said.
In an interview last month, when new case counts in Hawaii were still relatively low and the DOE was standing by its plan to start the school year as regularly scheduled on Aug. 4, state Health Director Bruce Anderson said distance learning was the safest course to take for PreK-12 schools, followed by keeping classes very small.
“Undoubtedly, we’re going to see a case from time to time,” he said. “Kids are going to be exposed outside the classroom – at home or from other activities.”
Anderson said communities can “hopefully deal with it by having classmates go into quarantine and not have to close an entire school.”
“It’s not only the number of cases that’s important, but where the cases are occurring,” he said. “If we saw widespread community transmission, people becoming ill without known exposure, with virus circulating in a community rapidly … we would probably recommend closing schools.”
Ching-Goya said she plans to stick to all-distance learning for her daughter for the entire first semester and then monitor how things are in December. She has to go into school daily to work, but her husband can work from home two days a week.
As for the other three days when both adults will be out of the house, her daughter will go to a classmate’s home.
“We are thankful that her classmate’s family also shares the same values of safety,” she said.
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