Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional Civil Beat series called “The New Classroom” about what distance learning is like for Hawaii families during the pandemic. Want to share your story? Email slee@civilbeat.org.

In her first week back at school at Kailua Intermediate, Bea Robillard learned how to code a game in tech ed, reviewed current events by watching a CNN reel in social studies and participated in gym class by selecting an individual workout. During recess, she caught up with a friend, chatting about their schedules for the year.

Sound like any regular school day? It was, except it all took place online.

“I kind of like it, because it’s a little more freedom in a way,” said the seventh grader. “You can eat a snack during class and no one would know.”

Welcome to the new classroom for the 2020-21 school year: the home. A setting that used to be the place to recharge in between stops is now the school hallway, the lab, the cafeteria, the gym, the library, the gossip corner and the band room.

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Kailua Intermediate seventh grader Bea Robillard, 12, does an assignment off a laptop from her home. Courtesy: Adrienne Robillard

All across the U.S., kids who are not back in the physical classroom due to the pandemic are “going to school” from home, in improvised work spaces that caused a desk backlog among major manufacturers over the summer.

Robillard and her younger brother, Ian, a fifth grader at Maunawili Elementary, are among tens of thousands of kids across Hawaii who were originally set to begin school on Aug. 4, until the reopen date got pushed to Aug. 17. Most public school kids are now learning remotely at least through the first quarter ending Oct. 2.

“Our house is not big and it has a pretty open concept. Everyone can hear everyone at any time,” said their mother, Adrienne Robillard. She and her husband, a software engineer, can both work out of their Kailua home.

They got on the desk-buying boat early, ordering two desks from Target. Those just recently arrived after being re-routed through New Jersey and California.

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The Robillard family ordered new desks from Target to prepare for their kids’ distance learning. Courtesy: Adrienne Robillard

Robillard, an early college instructor at Windward Community College, and her daughter share one work space in the living room. Her husband and son rely on an office space set up in a converted carport that also houses a couch.

“We kind of play musical chairs,” said Adrienne. “Sometimes people are walking around with a laptop looking for a different nook.”

This year was always expected to present new challenges when it came to schooling thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Bea and Ian just resumed classes with their classmates last week, they were already experiencing screen fatigue by the time they hopped on a Zoom call with a reporter at the end of a full school day, lasting 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“It’s kind of weird, because there’s recess but there’s not really recess. You get a 30-minute recess break, and a one-hour lunch break,” Ian, 10, said.

“Besides that, you’re always on camera.”

There are longings for normalcy. Bea said she misses seeing her friends in real life and that it’s strange gazing at her teachers over the computer. She can tell they’re in their classrooms since she sees the whiteboards behind them.

Adrienne is relieved her two children could rejoin their classmates after a shaky start to the school year using Acellus Learning Accelerator, the online curriculum offered through many Hawaii Department of Education schools for families who wanted full distance learning.

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Maunawili Elementary fifth grader Ian Robillard, 10, works on a school assignment from his home. Courtesy: Adrienne Robillard

Amid reports of inappropriate content and the very remedial pace of the lessons, Kailua Intermediate was among a handful of DOE schools that allowed Acellus students to opt out and rejoin the regular classroom.

“Having live teachers, especially from the school a student knows, feels like the most valuable part of the distance learning experience right now. And seeing friends, albeit on the screen, goes a long way when they haven’t seen each other in person in months,” said Adrienne.

Not everyone in the household seemed thrilled with the new structure to the school day. Ian, the fifth grader, reminisced about how much more free time he once had in his day.

“The other day, I did Acellus for one hour, (met with a) teacher for one hour, then went outside to play (the rest of the day),” he said.

Adrienne explained that her son, being 10, would naturally prefer to play games outside if he could.

“They’re definitely really tired (now), but it’s good,” she said. “I definitely feel more confident they’re in good hands.”

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