Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional Civil Beat series about what distance learning is like for Hawaii families during the pandemic. Want to share your story? Email slee@civilbeat.org.

Seven-year-old Xavier Malji scrunches up his face as if lost deep in thought. After a few seconds, he turns to the laptop camera and triumphantly says, “Namaste,” the traditional Sanskrit greeting he’s learned through Hindi lessons at home.

For this second grader, learning his father’s native language is a new pursuit during the pandemic. He proudly shares the word during a recent Zoom chat, his mother seated beside him.

“We always wanted him to learn the language but never had the opportunity to do it, so we are taking this time as an opportunity,” said Andrea Malji.

Xavier’s home school is Manoa Elementary, but his parents opted to do all-distance learning this semester out of safety precautions.

Manoa was one of the few schools that planned to bring all students back for in-person learning, before the spike in coronavirus cases caused all Hawaii Department of Education schools to start the first quarter beginning Aug. 17 in full distance mode. The latest plan as of Sept. 17 allows school complex areas to choose whether or not to switch to a hybrid learning schedule starting in mid-October.

The Maljis signed a contract to use Acellus Learning Accelerator, the school’s chosen distance learning platform, for the entire first semester ending in December. But Andrea quickly found the program was insufficient.

Xavier Malji, distance learning, school, education, Manoa Elementary, New Classroom
Manoa Elementary second-grader Xavier Malji holds up art he made at home. Courtesy: Andrea Malji/2020

“It’s not enough for him to fill the days, and it’s not really that challenging,” she said.

So the Hawaii Pacific University international relations professor designed her own curriculum for her son, one that incorporates Hindi and Gujarati lessons, art projects and geography.

For one social studies unit, she unfurled a large colorful map in the living room to point out parts of the world that once had been colonized, using different colors for certain places based on which country was the colonizer.

“I don’t have any background in childhood education, but for his age, I know the basics of what he needs,” Andrea explained. “I looked at the expectations of what they should know at that age.”

Both Andrea and her husband work full time but have the added flexibility to work from home. They also have the help of a babysitter.

Because Malji doesn’t have to teach Thursdays and Fridays, she’s able to spend more time helping her son on those days.

When it comes to learning Hindi, this is the first time Xavier has gotten formal instruction through workbooks and careful study of the alphabet, even though his father casually speaks it with him at home and the family watches the occasional Hindi movie together.

“He’s doing a good job,” Andrea said. “I’m learning with him.”

Xavier Malji, distance learning, school, education, Manoa Elementary, New Classroom
Xavier practices writing out letters of the Hindi alphabet during language lessons at home. Courtesy: Andrea Malji/2020

Xavier also recently began participating in a weekly online hip-hop class offered through Manoa Elementary, one way he can stay connected to his school.

Although he technically is assigned to a classroom, he’s largely separated from the rest of his peers because he’s in the full-distance group. While the teacher checks in on him, his interaction with other students is so limited he doesn’t know who actually is in his class.

The lack of socialization has been hard on her son, Andrea acknowledges. She said she notices an increased anxiety in Xavier and a “clinginess” that had not been there before the pandemic.

“When he hears the wind, he gets really nervous,” she said. “There’s definitely that isolation component. He hasn’t been with friends.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “I still think we can’t forget the reason we’re doing this — to hopefully keep kids safe. Sometimes you have to make those sacrifices and hope kids adjust back quickly. There’s no easy, clear answer for what the right thing to do is.”

Read other stories in this series:

• “Distance Learning Means Musical Chairs For Windward Oahu Family

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