Eric Stinton: It's Time For Some Kids To Start Learning In Person Again - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at

I recently saw some of my students for the first time this year. Saw them in person that is, as opposed to a floating head on a screen – or worse, a black square with a name on it when the computer camera is turned off.

After two months of distance learning, a select few students have started coming to school. They still participate in the same virtual classes, but they are sequestered in small groups on campus where they have more reliable internet access, quick tech support and adult supervision.

This is a good thing. While everyone has had to make adjustments this year, for some students and their families there are simply no conditions under which distance learning is going to work. Their disabilities are too incompatible with the independence required to succeed in this format; or their home environments are too unstable to be effective classrooms; or they are left alone while the parents are at work and they never really show up to class.

Dole Middle School sign ‘Virtual Learning starts 8/24’ during COVID-19 pandemic. September 3, 2020
Some students are starting to come back to DOE campuses after spending the first quarter of the school year learning from home. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

For one reason or another, the students back on campus have been flailing throughout the first quarter, and the only reasonable intervention is to have someone from the school be physically present with them. Anything less would be to effectively deny these students access to education. Besides, figuring out how to have a small handful of students on campus is a much more achievable task than expecting dozens of families to rearrange their daily lives.

Having these students at school in some capacity — some will come a few times a week, some every day – is no doubt the right thing to do for them individually, but it is also a reminder that the current virtual setup is temporary.

Sooner or later we’ll have more students returning to school until, eventually, all students come back. Whether it happens this year or not, having pockets of students return to school is the first step on the long road back to the resumption of regular school days, and it’s crucial to get it right.

Bringing Kids Back Slowly

It is way too early to have large numbers of kids at school, even in the blended model where classes are split into halves and students take turns coming to school. The number of new daily cases has been dropping in Hawaii, which is encouraging, but as we start to reopen and the virus continues to mutate, waiting to see how the next few months play out is the prudent decision.

Although students are at low risk of developing severe infections, they are not immune and they can still spread the virus to more vulnerable people in their lives – including their family members and teachers. An outbreak at a school would be a nightmare, especially if it led to a death in the school community that could have otherwise been prevented. If you can’t handle the worst-case scenario, then you can’t make a decision where it’s a possible outcome.

That’s why starting off with a small number of students coming back is so vital. Beyond the educational benefits for those specific students, it offers a chance to figure out how larger numbers of students will eventually return, whenever that may be.

Roberts School Bus travels thru a parking lot to pick up some students. August 17, 2020
Bringing small groups of students back to campus gives administrators a chance to figure out how to resume in-person classes for all students. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

This is an opportunity to fine tune the logistics of drop-offs and departures and movement in the halls. It will provide a glimpse into procedural blind spots, and the small number of students means problems that arise will be significantly more manageable, and less likely to be lethal.

Meanwhile, continuing distance learning for the majority of students will help curb the rate of infection in local communities and give schools time to prepare for larger numbers of students on campus. Seeing the real behavior of students at school will only help school leaders make more informed decisions for keeping students, teachers and staff safe.

Plus, continuing distance learning will make greater use of the digital skills that have been taught thus far: how to navigate different websites, how to check grades and classwork independently, how to communicate. These are lessons as important as the specific content students are learning, and most kids have only just begun to get the hang of them. It would be a colossal waste to change it up before those skills start to really take root.

Distance learning as students return to school via teleconferencing daily class lessons with their teachers during COVID-19 pandemic.
Students are learning important digital skills during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

It should be noted that many teachers like the idea of allowing floundering students back on campus, but are hesitant about how these plans will actually work.

This is a legitimate concern, and there are real challenges that will need to be addressed: Where will students actually be? Who will monitor them throughout the day, and what if they don’t feel comfortable risking exposure? How will recess and lunch breaks work? What happens if a student shows up sick and the parents are at work all day?

Eventually, we’ll have to figure out how to allow teachers to telework more despite in-person classes taking place, since that will substantially reduce the burden of our substitute teacher shortage. That’s when the real headaches will start to happen, but if we can make progress on the simpler challenges of a limited student return, we’ll at least be more ready to tackle the complicated business of scaling it up.

This is not an easy situation to be in. School leaders have to balance doing what’s best for students with doing right by teachers – often with strained resources and limited options – and sometimes those efforts are in conflict with one another. We must minimize risk as much as possible, but we can’t sacrifice the most vulnerable learners we have in that process.

There is no easy or obvious solution here, but the best path forward starts with letting the kids who need school the most to come back. But we have to approach this from a long-term perspective. This is not just an intervention to help struggling students – we’re creating the blueprint for how we’ll come out of the pandemic in the best educational shape possible.

Read this next:

VIRUS TRACKER -- Oct. 2: 87 New COVID-19 Cases And 3 Deaths In Hawaii

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at

Latest Comments (0)

By keeping public schools closed this long, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our keiki. For those who don't know, distance learning HIDOE-style is two 25-min Zoom sessions per day - that's it! I want my HI state taxes refunded, so I can move my kids to a private school that has in-person classes or real distance instruction. When this is all over, I promise to relentlessly lobby for breaking up HIDOE and outlawing HSTA.

Chiquita · 2 years ago

The TV show South Park just put out a "Pandemic Special," last week about school reopenings - but it has a lot of adult lanuage an content.

MEL · 2 years ago

Private schools have this figured out and many private schools are not more luxurious/spacious than public schools. The #1 reason the schools are closed is the HSTA.

MEL · 2 years ago

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