The state Department of Education has seen a surge in the number of students planning to home school this year as COVID-19 continues to spread in the islands.

There was a 43% rise in requests to home school in the first three months of the 2020-21 school year in Hawaii compared with the entire 2019-20 school year, according to data provided by the DOE.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, Hawaii public schools received 4,755 forms of intent to home school, compared with 3,303 notices for all of last school year, which spanned July 1, 2019 to June 30.

The steep increase to withdraw students from public school in favor of home schooling could be a sign of a growing number of weary parents looking for an alternative to online distance learning or a safer option to in-classroom instruction during the pandemic.

It also means schools seeing fewer students enroll than projected could have their budgets slimmed down this year.

It’s difficult to know how many parents are withdrawing their children from public schools because of the coronavirus. The opt-out forms — known as 4140 forms or “Exceptions to Compulsory Education” — don’t ask for a specific reason and DOE officials would not speculate.

“Drawing any general conclusions between the data and the reasons for withdrawing would be purely assumptive,” said DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.

The Kailua-Kalaheo complex area in Windward Oahu, which comprises 14 DOE schools, received 326 opt-out forms since the 2020-21 school year started.

Lanelle Hibbs, the complex area superintendent, said Kailua-Kalaheo typically sees fewer than 100 requests in an entire year.

“It’s a concern among all the (complex area superintendents),” she said.

On Sept. 22, Kailua-Kalaheo became one of the first complex areas to notify parents that students would remain in distance learning for the second quarter, which began Oct. 12 and goes to the end of the calendar year.

Most complex areas are planning to stick with mostly distance learning for the second quarter although some schools might attempt to bring kids back to the classroom in phases, depending on whether daily coronavirus case counts are on a downward trend.

After Hibbs’ letter was distributed to parents, she said she received four additional 4140 forms.

“If (COVID-19) numbers start to go down statewide … some elementary principals are talking about bringing back kindergarten children maybe in November,” she said.

Declining Enrollment

Enrollment overall across the K-12 Hawaii public school system is down nearly 3% this year: it dipped to 174,704 this year based on early September figures. Much of that is driven by decreased kindergarten enrollment, with 1,971 fewer kids entering that grade level than last year, said Kalani.

Because school funding is directly tied to student enrollment count, the decreased numbers are a source of concern.

Kalani said that schools could lose money based on the weighted student formula, which is the per-pupil funding allocated to schools based on enrollment and student demographics.

DOE’s per-pupil funding level is currently $15,800. While a school’s budget is set before the school year based on projected enrollment, actual enrollment counts dictate whether a school will gain or lose funds as the year progresses. Enrollment is captured at three separate points: at the start of the school year, at the end of the first quarter and at the beginning of the second semester.

Across all 257 DOE schools, there was more than $23 million cumulatively withheld, based on the first enrollment count, which was 5,000 fewer students than projected. There were 174,704 students enrolled in DOE schools this year.

Nothing stands out in those areas that have seen the highest number of home school requests, whether rural or urban, or areas associated with a particular socioeconomic level.

Instead, the data shows a more scattered picture, meaning parents all over the state are feeling a tug in the home school direction.

Among the 15 DOE complex areas — which consist of high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them — Oahu’s Aiea-Moanalua-Radford complex, Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua complex and Campbell-Kapolei complex saw the sharpest rise in home school requests this year so far, numbering 726, 602 and 508, respectively.

Other islands also have seen a steep rise in home school requests in the first three months of the school year compared with last school year, including the Kapaa-Kauai-Waimea complex at 307, Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui at 470 and Hana-Lanai-Molokai complex at 169.

Sarah Dale said she decided to withdraw her two kids, who are in fourth grade and kindergarten, from Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary, shortly before the fall break started in early October, in favor of home schooling.

She said virtual learning was not working for either child and was disheartened by the fact the school did not attempt even a blended learning model when classes began in August. She also felt decisions were made too last minute by the DOE and that teachers didn’t get adequate training in online teaching.

“My kids are very shy but love school, love being in the classroom,” she said. “They need some stability.”

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