An F isn’t just a black mark on the report card this year. It’s a gateway to in-person learning, at least in the case of some public schools in Hawaii.

Kids with failing grades are being identified as the first to return to campus as schools slowly reopen.

Amid the highly polarizing debate surrounding the reopening of classrooms and whether it is safe to bring students back for in-person learning, some Hawaii schools are already quietly bringing back those receiving the lowest marks.

Distance learning as students return to school via teleconferencing daily class lessons with their teachers during COVID-19 pandemic.
Struggling students may get priority access to in-person instruction at some Hawaii public schools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Students are several months into a mostly virtual academic year due to the pandemic, so first-quarter grades — recorded in mid-October — reflect that learning experience.

And while teachers are being more lenient with late work, flexible with open-note tests and creative with testing formats to account for the challenges of distance learning, they’re also gauging who needs in-person instruction the most right now based on early grades.

“For the F students, we request them to be the first to return to campus,” said Hannibal Starbuck, a science teacher at H.P. Baldwin High on Maui, which is still mostly online. “For some reason, the school environment helps them become more successful.”

While many state Department of Education schools plan to gradually bring students back to campus this month, most of the 294 public schools are still largely online for the majority of kids.

And for public school students, these first-quarter grades are the first they’ve received since March — last school year — when the sudden shift to online learning led the DOE to stop new grades for the fourth and final quarter.

Jonathan Medeiros, an English teacher at Kauai High, which is also mostly online, said his school has always brought its most vulnerable students back to campus, but has now expanded to include students who had trouble passing first quarter. Families can opt out of coming back.

If failing students show progress, Medeiros said, they can move back to full distance learning, making more room for those who are traditionally considered vulnerable such as special education students and English language learners. Medeiros now sees between one to six kids per class period in-person, once a week.

The same operating principle applies at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kauai. Kevin Matsunaga, a digital media and yearbook teacher, said in-person time is limited due to the school’s schedule but it gives him a chance to give his most struggling students more attention.

In a typical year, he has about 25 to 30 students in a computer lab. Now he sees one to five students per period twice a week.

“It’s really easy in distance learning for kids to get lost in the whole shuffle,” he said. “When we had (regular) class, they could at least still come to school — that’s where they get their escape. But now, there are issues at home, five kids trying to use the same Wi-Fi, and it’s slow. … If they don’t show up they’re getting nothing.”

Kauluwela Elementary School studentsand parents arrive on first day of in person instruction during a COVID-19 pandemic. August 17, 2020
Some teachers are using “incomplete” grades to serve as a wake up call to parents for students who need more help learning remotely. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Just 10% of DOE’s 171,000 students are receiving in-person instruction, mostly in lower grades, according to DOE data that shows the higher their grade level, the less likely a student is to be going to campus now.

Daphne Okunaga, a math teacher at Pearl City High, said her students’ first-quarter grades largely tracked those in a typical year: mostly As and Bs. But she’s also changed the way she assesses them — for instance, converting one exam that covered a unit on functions and graphing into a verbal assessment. She blocked off a half-hour chunk with each student to allow them to explain their answers directly to her.

“Overall, most of them aced the exam,” she said. “Some of them get a lot of anxiety taking a math test. This one was more informal, just a conversation with me.”

Okunaga said while her students are concerned about grades, especially as it relates to college entry requirements, their desire to achieve a high mark is also driven by something greater.

“For a lot of them intrinsically, they want to prove they can do it: to complete the materials of the course, to show they can learn this way,” she said. “For some of them, it’s almost like a pride thing — ‘you can throw these obstacles at me but I’m still going to survive and thrive.'”

At Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, a K-12 charter school in Pahoa that enrolls 725 students, an I typically stands for incomplete — which means a teacher didn’t receive enough of a response to issue a valid grade.

Pre-pandemic, an incomplete for seventh to 12th graders would usually turn into an F unless the principal intervened.

“I never intervened with the teacher, and said, ‘Hey, I want that (grade to change).’ An I is an I and it turns to an F,” said principal Steve Hirakami.

Now, he said, an incomplete serves more as a heads-up to parents, many of whom don’t even realize their kids aren’t doing the work.

“In this case, I am kind of twisting the use of the ‘I.’ I’m using it as kind of a warning sign, to encourage contact between parents and schools.”

The school can expect a lot of contact: in the first quarter, the number of Is for HAAS secondary students was 20% higher than usual, according to the principal.

Some kids have not been showing up at all to virtual classes, and Hirakami said it’s important for teachers and administrators to understand why.

“I really think we’re failing the kids if we don’t try and find out,” he said.

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