On March 15, the eve of a weeklong spring recess for 179,000 Hawaii public school students, Gov. David Ige announced the break would be extended by another week due to concerns that the coronavirus was spreading.

That was six months ago, when the case count in Hawaii was at just seven confirmed cases.

Students didn’t return to the traditional classroom for the rest of the school year. And now, more than a month into a new school year, and 12,000 cases later, most public school students are still learning remotely — a sign of just how much the pandemic has upended traditional K-12 schooling here.

Much has fluctuated in the last six months. But as tensions flare over the best instructional model during a pandemic and scrutiny mounts over what some call “unclear, inconsistent” policies issued by state education leaders, the question remains: did the state Department of Education do all that it could to smartly plan for the transition from spring to fall?

“As the pandemic roared through our country and the world, we were lulled into feeling that Hawaii was going to avoid the worst of it, and all would be over by the fall,” said Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne.

“We did not use the spring shutdown to do the planning and training that was needed for the opening of school in August,” she said.

Hilo High School sign reads ‘No Student Off’ during a COVID-19 pandemic. September 24, 2020
Hilo High School is one of 257 DOE schools currently in all-distance learning at least until next month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

To be sure, multiple factors were at play. A virus whose spread around the islands has widely fluctuated as cases spiked and temporary shutdowns were ordered. A delay in the development of school reopening metrics from the state Department of Health. Disagreement between the DOE and the state teachers’ union around basic safety protocols like 3 feet versus 6 feet spacing between desks.

Editor’s Note

Today, frustrations are evident across all levels of the broader school community.

Parents frazzled by their kids’ excessive screen time during remote instruction. Teachers worried about their health for having to work at school. Confusion over the patchwork of class time expectations and telework policies across DOE’s 257 school campuses. And concerns the DOE doesn’t seem to have a handle on student technological needs.

In the midst of all this is a perception that the Hawaii DOE, the agency steering the state’s single-district school system, did not produce a clear strategy to tackle this crisis head on.

“It seems there is no plan from the state level DOE. They’re going week by week,” Mililani High teacher Matt Calica said, shortly after the school year started Aug. 17. “I understand it’s unprecedented, what’s happening, but give us some kind of guidance.”

Another shift may be coming. Under new state Department of Health guidance, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said at a Sept. 17 news conference school complex areas can decide to return to a hybrid learning model — a blend of in-person and virtual instruction — as of Oct. 12, the start of the second quarter.

Included in the guidance is a chart indicating when it’s safe to bring elementary or secondary students back to school based on the number of cases per 10,000 people over a 14-day period. Already, the metrics are drawing fierce pushback from educators and union officials.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said it’s still unsafe to bring students back into the classroom and believes distance learning should keep going for the entire first semester ending Dec. 18.

“We’re going to fight this. The numbers they came out with are so bad, they’re not even CDC numbers,” he said of the new DOH metrics, referring to the federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What keeps me up at night is the death of a child or another staff member or teacher at a school,” he said.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has placed a lot of school reopening decisions on school and complex-area leaders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Battle lines are being drawn all over the country between teachers’ unions and school districts around the issue of classroom safety as the new school year starts up for other kids.

Failure To Communicate In Advance

One major criticism of the DOE’s handling of the crisis here is its failure to take a long view of the situation.

Since Ige’s joint DOE press conference March 15, state education officials have issued no fewer than eight changes to the school calendar or a shift in instructional delivery, often within mere days of each other.

The DOE initially said students would return to campuses on April 7 after the extended spring break. Then it later pushed back the date to April 30. Eventually, Kishimoto said all schools would close for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

The fourth quarter of last school year, in which public school kids lost 46 days of in-person learning, was a trying, experimental time. Grades were not counted, attendance not tracked and schools were left scrambling to produce paper instructional packets for kids who could not easily connect online.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school student raises her hand in class during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Kaneohe Elementary brought back some students for summer school, putting plenty of space between desks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

During the summer, some schools brought kids back to campus for catch-up learning, but enrollment was limited and didn’t simulate a regular student body.

In the new school year, last-minute timing announcements by DOE have continued, leaving many confused.

After the union urged more teacher training, the state Board of Education approved a delay in the start of school from Aug. 4 to Aug. 17. DOE announced shortly before classes began that all schools would start in all-distance mode for at least the first month. By Aug. 27, the DOE said all distance learning would continue for the entire first quarter.

All the changes from up top have caused school principals to simply “trust their gut” on school reopening plans. The lack of consistency has caused angst for parents, as well.

DOE “could be better at planning ahead and communicating more clearly in advance what they think should happen, instead of saying, ‘We’re going to do this, no, we’re going to do that,’” said Lera Broz, the mother of three, two of whom attend Mililani Uka Elementary.

“This constant changing of what will happen is very frustrating for parents and teachers,” she said.

What is Fault Lines?
“Fault Lines” is a special project that explores disruption and discord in Hawaii and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

What frustrates others is the lack of a unified teacher telework policy, an issue the Board of Education will address at a meeting on Thursday, in addition to the DOH metrics.

As a result, teachers across the islands are reporting denials of requests to work from home by principals or complex area leaders, despite fears of working in an enclosed school building with others nearby. That is stoking resentment among teachers and leading to stress, said Rosenlee.

“The superintendent should be creating policies that promote safety across the state. By doing it in a hodgepodge manner, (she) has put teachers and students at risk,” he said.

At an Aug. 20 board of education meeting, Kishimoto, who was not available for an interview for this story, said she did “not agree with a unilateral approach from me, top down, telling principals how (telework) can be rolled out.”

“I think we have provided enough guidance and structure,” she said.

It’s also a concern whether the DOE did a sufficient job collecting robust data on computer and mobile hotspot needs.

While the DOE said in late August it purchased 34,500 new computers and 4,000 hotspot devices between June and August, not all devices got here in time. Schools only surveyed parents on tech needs shortly before the start of the new school year.

Distance learning as students resume classes using Chromebooks to attend their daily lessons from 8am to 2pm.
Not all students have access to a Chromebook or even reliable internet to adequately log into their classes from home. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“These surveys are helpful but they’re only one way of acquiring data,” said Cheri Nakamura, an education advocate who had been seeking such data since April. “Even if it wasn’t a pandemic situation, wouldn’t you want to have that data at your fingertips anyway?”

“Data helps paint the picture of the true situation. Without that, you’re flying blind,” she added.

Hawaii students, according to a recent analysis by Education Week Research Center, are most at risk of learning loss during the pandemic compared with other states due to internet access issues and low level of student interactions with teachers based on a weeklong snapshot of data in May.

The DOE has been called out in recent days for failing to adequately analyze data for even a shortened, contained time period like the summer. Board members at a Sept. 17 meeting said a new summer learning dashboard the DOE created didn’t tell much of a story.

That dashboard says 20,719 students were reached, but it fails to present more granular data.

According to Nakamura’s own analysis, DOE summer school reached just 20% of “disproportionately impacted” students — defined as 11th- or 12th-graders needing credit recovery; failing students; those not meeting third-grade literacy; or the chronically absent, among others.

“DOE should be identifying students that will need summer help right now, track them, and get in touch with their families so when summer rolls around we will have a better chance of having them enroll,” her written testimony read.

‘This Was Just A Mistake’

Among the messiest situations facing the DOE is its decision to offer a distance learning program for families that has come under fire for its culturally insensitive and remedial content.

Many families who preferred not to send their kids back to the classroom this fall were asked to sign a contract to use Acellus Learning Accelerator for the entire first semester, in some cases the whole year.

Now, close to 80,000 DOE students are relying on Acellus, whose racist, sexist, outdated and age-inappropriate content caused some Hawaii school principals to dump the program. Other school districts in the U.S. have similarly canceled the platform, leading to critical national news coverage in recent weeks.

DOE Board Member Kenneth Uemura.
Board of Education Member Kenneth Uemura said at a Sept. 17 meeting he hadn’t heard the DOE say Acellus was a mistake, “because you’re still using it.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

When the Board of Education met earlier this month, several board members grilled Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami on how the DOE could let such a program pass through to the hands of families.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge this was just a mistake, this was a bad choice,” board member Bruce Voss said.

Ken Uemura asked why a more thorough review of Acellus wasn’t done between May and the time schools reopened in August.

“Why was there such a rush when you had more time to do it?” he asked.

DOE curriculum specialists were only given 10 days to review the program, which spans 300 courses offered across K-12. Beyond giving the program poor marks, they even urged administrators to look to other virtual learning programs over Acellus.

We used what we had, and we knew we had to do a quick turnaround at that time,” Unebasami said in more than 90 minutes of questioning from the board. “Nothing that I’ve seen so far tells me we took it through the type of review we need to take it through, that we will take it through, as we do our review.”

Rather than pull the program, the DOE has pledged a comprehensive review of Acellus before the second quarter starts up in mid-October, even though many parents have reported their child can complete an entire week’s worth of Acellus lessons in less than a day.

Virtual Learning Will Last ‘Long Into the Future’

Payne, of the BOE, said moving forward, DOE officials need to be more open to assistance from nonprofits when it comes to wireless internet solutions and have a plan that “clearly aligns to health data and that is fully understood by all who are expected to implement it.”

“It is likely that there will be some level of virtual learning for students long into the future,” she said. “We need to build a plan to address this with training for teachers and access to appropriate, engaging and rigorous curriculum for students.”

Already, some school complexes have announced they will continue distance learning through the end of December. One is the Kailua-Kalaheo Complex area.

The area superintendent, Lanelle Hibbs, said in a Sept. 22 letter to the school community that schools will continue to provide in-person instruction to students who require specialized learning services, are academically falling behind or lack internet at home, but that her complex will use the rest of the year to plan for spring.

Rosenlee worries about a rising teacher vacancy rate if school complexes choose to bring students back to the classroom before the pandemic is tamed.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee DOE Salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee has been leading the charge to give teachers more telework flexibility and health and safety protections once classroom instruction resumes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nerves are on edge following the Sept. 9 death of Dole Middle School office clerk, Dayna Inouye, whose sister, a counselor at the school, told the BOE she believed Dayna had contracted COVID-19 at work.

The DOE has reported 123 cumulative COVID-19 cases from schools in the week ending Sept. 25 but still is not providing more location-specific information for these cases.

The new school year already shows signs of a major shift. The DOE saw a 2.6% decrease in student enrollment this school year, caused mostly by a drop-off in kindergarten enrollment, with 1,971 fewer kindergarteners this year. It’s not clear if the pandemic caused that decline for sure, but it’s a trend happening nationally.

One thing is clear in the new school year: parents are stressed and willing to take a risk to send their kids back to the classroom. Many recently flooded the board with letters urging a return to in-person learning.

Candice Nakamura, whose children are ages 7, 10 and 12, said her kids are not learning much of anything on the i-Ready platform they use for distance learning. Besides, she has no choice but to leave them home alone during the day since she and her husband both have jobs and no extra child care.

“I just feel these kids lost so much,” she said. “They got their sports taken away, their education, their social life. Where are these kids’ outlets? They have nothing whatsoever.”

The Honolulu resident said reopening classrooms is worth the risk, especially if proper safety precautions are followed.

“If we don’t try it,” she said, “we will never know.”

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