The Hawaii Department of Education has allocated just over $38 million in federal relief funds so far toward computer purchases and mobile connectivity devices to assist students with distance learning since the COVID-19 pandemic set in.

DOE officials provided updated figures and data on distance learning expenditures during an informational briefing Tuesday to the House Higher & Lower Education Committee.

The DOE has received $43 million total through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund as part of the federal CARES Act and another $31 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, part of another federal distribution to the states.

Kawananakoa Middle School electronic sign asks about Chromebook pickup during COVID-19 pandemic. August 13, 2020
The Hawaii DOE has so far purchased 49,000 computers for students but 23,000 are still pending delivery. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

So far, the biggest expenditure has been $29 million for computers. Another $9 million was spent on roughly 17,300 mobile hotspots to accommodate distance learning. But as Tuesday’s briefing revealed, problems with connectivity for rural students and device delivery persist.

Though Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said 49,000 total computers were purchased so far, a DOE spreadsheet shows 23,300 of those devices have still not arrived. A national backlog of computers, driven by school pandemic needs, has contributed to the delay, she said.

Additionally, the DOE told lawmakers it set up six mobile Wi-Fi vans at some of the most remote or challenged areas in the state — Kau and Pahoa on Hawaii island; Hana on Maui; Molokai; Lanai; Kauai; and the Pearl-City Waipahu complex — to provide needed signal to students out there.

All told, just under 10% of students as of last week were participating in full in-person instruction out of 171,903 total DOE students, the department said, mostly at the pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or lower grade levels.

With more than 90% of public school kids still relying on distance or blended learning, lawmakers said it remains crucial to make sure kids are getting tech needs met to the best of the DOE’s ability with the available funds it has.

“It’s not specific to Hawaii; these are challenges that are happening across the nation,” Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Lower & Higher Education Committee, said in a call with reporters afterward.

“It’s a work in progress, but I would say there is still some lack of clarity on what the total need is,” he said, referring to device and connectivity needs. “At the basic level, we want to make sure the kids are able to learn. We don’t want to put them at any additional disadvantage.”

The briefing also touched on the DOE’s plan to transition out of Acellus Learning Accelerator, the online learning curriculum the state Board of Education voted to discontinue last week by the end of the 2020-21 school year due to parent concerns with inappropriate, racist and sexist content.

Since April 1, DOE schools and complexes have spent a total $2.8 million on Acellus, with 74,405 total licenses purchased since that time, according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.

The DOE has spent $2.5 million on a pilot online curriculum offered by Arizona State University using federal relief funds and another $500,000 on the learning management system known as Blackboard.

Woodson cited a news article saying several other states had immediately canceled Acellus in their areas once reports of problematic content surfaced. He asked why the Hawaii DOE hadn’t moved in similarly rapid fashion.

“I am personally anxious to move to a permanent solution,” Kishimoto replied. “Until we were using or had access to the broader curriculum, we had not seen that (level of concern) previously, or worst case scenario, it wasn’t reported previously.”

The DOE said it’s received 50 submissions as of Oct. 8 on a “controversial content concern” form regarding Acellus, with the majority of complaints referring to “inappropriate content” or lack of rigor of the program.

While the department last week released a brief summary report on Acellus done by an internal team of specialists, some lawmakers have been pressing for public release of a more extensive document that lays out equity specialists’ concerns in more detail. Civil Beat has requested the document as well.

Kishimoto told Rep. Amy Perruso, who asked at the hearing when the full Acellus report would be available, that she doesn’t have a date certain.

“We should ask for it — and we will ask for it,” House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said on the call with reporters.

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