About the Author
Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.
Princess Victoria Kaiulani Elementary School in Kalihi told parents of kindergartners and first graders it was time to bring their children back to school on Nov. 16 for face-to-face learning.
That was even though some parents, including Lita Yere, said they did not want their children back together in the classroom when COVID-19 continues to spread through the community.
“I am too scared. I didn’t feel safe sending her back,” Yere said of her first grade daughter, Yuna.
Yere said the school only gave her two options if she decided not bring her daughter back: transfer the little girl to another school offering distance learning or do home schooling.
“I can’t do homeschooling. I am working in my restaurant. I have two other children, 5-year-old twins I am helping with their own online preschool lessons. My daughter likes Kaiulani and enjoys her friends there. This feels like she is getting kicked out,” Yere said in a recent telephone conversation.
She owns M & N Filipino Restaurant on N. King St., directly across from Kaiulani Elementary.
Her daughter’s teacher, Paul Bauer, told Yere and other parents that he was willing to continue to teach their children using the virtual learning platform Google Classroom, as he has been doing since the school year started in August.
But principal Jill Texeira has made it clear to Bauer that this was not an option for students in kindergarten and the first grade at the Honolulu school.
“Our youngest learners require the full attention of their teachers for the highest quality of education possible,” she said in an email to Civil Beat. She added that parents may home school their children if they feel unsafe.
In August, when COVID-19 infections were soaring — 355 on Aug. 13 — almost all of Hawaii’s public school students were directed to online learning provided by their teachers, who created their own lesson plans using virtual learning platforms such as Google Classroom.
Now in the second quarter, some schools such as Kaiulani have decided to return to face-to-face instruction for some grade levels. Each principal at Hawaii’s 257 public schools is given leeway by the Department of Education to decide how he or she wants to do it.
DOE Says It’s Up To The Principal
The department says 9.7% or 16,531 of Hawaii’s some 170,000 public school students have returned to full in-person learning. The rest are doing distance learning or blended learning with only some of the students back in classrooms at the same time, the rest online.
Bauer, the teacher, said in a phone interview that parents of more than half of his 11 students were reluctant to have their children return to his classroom so he offered to accommodate them online while teaching the other students face-to-face.
“Everything would be the same for students staying home, seamless. They would not need to adjust because they had been learning that way since August,” he said.
He said he also felt safer himself with fewer students in the room at the same time because he has underlying medical conditions and worries he could become dangerously sick if he contracted the virus.
But Bauer says the Kaiulani principal came into his class on the first day of in-person learning and was upset when she saw only two students there while the rest were on a screen.
Bauer said Texeira told him all his students needed to be back in school. Then at his insistence, she looked into the camera and told the parents their children must return to the classroom the next day.
“I have to say this was one of the most stressful days of my career. I didn’t feel support from the school. I didn’t know what to say,” said Bauer, who has been a Hawaii public school teacher in the Kalihi area for 21 years.
Fellow Kaiulani Elementary teacher Jason Pavia agreed.
“It is very troubling to hear that parents do not have the option of distance learning when they feel it is best for their children and there is a teacher who is willing to provide it for them,” Pavia said.
Texeira said that if Bauer were allowed to continue with distance learning, then the service would have to be offered by the other teachers at the school as well.
“Our individual classrooms are one part of our greater school community and we need to ensure all students have equitable access to any alternative learning opportunities,” she said. “Although well-intentioned, Mr. Bauer made unilateral decisions without consulting with or informing school administrators.”
She said she felt it was time for the younger children to come back. “Most of our children have been physically away from campus for eight months during the pandemic, so it has been exciting and heartwarming to be able to resume in-person learning for some of our students,” she wrote.
She said she has also been working to bring back to campus students whose parents in the summer signed them up for a full school year of the Acellus Learning Accelerator, the controversial online learning platform the DOE expects to phase out at the end of the school year.
Acellus is a separate and different kind of distance learning than the teacher-driven instruction Bauer and other public school teachers had been providing.
“Parents should be able to decide what is safe for their children.” — Hawaii State Teachers Association president Corey Rosenlee
Bauer acknowledged that he should have first told Texeira about his plan to continue to offer virtual learning to parents who preferred it, but he was worried she would have refused to let him do it.
He was hoping she would agree to it as an option after seeing his work in progress.
Hawaii State Teachers Association president Corey Rosenlee said flexibility is needed.
As president of the union, he said he is unable to address individual situations like Bauer’s, but he thinks parents should be offered every reasonable option possible for their children during the pandemic.
“We have never been in a situation like this before. Parents should be able to decide what is safe for their children,” he said, adding that teachers also should feel safe.
He said the pandemic has prompted some Hawaii teachers to retire or give up teaching early because of pandemic safety concerns.
The union has championed a wait-and-see approach. “We are hoping in the spring it will be safer for students and teachers to go back to face-to-face learning,” he said.
Some Kaiulani Elementary parents said they didn’t have time to consult with the school or to absorb the news after being told at the last minute about the resumption of person-to-person classes.
Some said they got the news by automated voice messages on the day before classes resumed. One parent said her phone was broken and she only found out that in-person learning was about to begin because she happened to be in the school office.
Kaiulani parent Arsney McCoy decided to keep her daughter Kai-Ann home after being given the options of keeping her daughter at home with no instruction or homeschooling her.
“I want her to continue distance learning with Mr. Bauer. Until we can be sure about getting a vaccine, it is not safe for the children to be in school. They are too young. They are unable to remember all the safety protocols like to keep washing their hands. I don’t want her to bring back the virus when I have two other children living at home. I have to protect my children,” she said.
Parent Naisha Kekumu-Credo said she is in the same dilemma. She is keeping her first grader, Levy, home because she worries about the safety of her two other children, a 2-month-old infant and a 1-year-old whose continuing care is dependent on her staying healthy.
“I was caught off guard when I was told Levy would have to go back to school. I worried that he wouldn’t remember to keep social distancing when he was out playing at recess. I don’t want him to get sick,” she said. “We are still in Level II in Hawaii when no more than five non-household members are supposed to be together in a group. It’s not all right to insist that a whole classroom be back in school at once.”
“I was happy when Mr. Bauer offered to continue distance learning for some of the students. I don’t see what the issue is,” she added.
Bauer has taken sick leave, he said, until it can be determined if some Kaiulani Elementary students can be given the option of learning virtually from him until they feel less wary of the virus. He has filed a formal complaint with the state schools superintendent and the Board of Education.
The DOE in an emailed statement sent before Bauer filed the complaint said it could not speak directly to his situation.
“Parents who did not opt to do a virtual-only solution at the beginning of the year and are currently uncomfortable with their child transitioning to blended or in-person learning should speak to their principal about available options for full-distance learning,” the department said.
The parents I spoke with said they already did exactly that only to discover there are no options for distance learning at Kaiulani Elementary for children in kindergarten or the first grade, not even with the controversial Acellus program, because they did not sign up for that at the beginning of the year.
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