When a student shows up in class with a bruise or another possible sign of abuse, staff are required to investigate whether the student might be in harm’s way. That’s hard to do when communicating via computer.
The problems of distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic are well known by now – failing grades, poor internet access, lack of school sports. But students also have lost access to school social services that have traditionally provided a safety net — especially for those struggling at home.
Consistent school meals. Counseling. Programs to help youth stay out of trouble. Those services all make school more than just a place to learn but a physical environment that fosters positive behavior.
“Back in the day, teachers could see something is changed about a student,” said Ian Tanita, a counselor at Mililani Mauka Elementary. “It’s very difficult to see that in a virtual setting.”
Counselors still conduct daily wellness checks online, but they lack the personal interaction that is vital to detecting problems to allow for early intervention, said Tanita, who also is president of the Hawaii School Counselor Association.
For example, it’s hard to talk to a student when their mom and dad are fighting nearby so Tanita says he asks them to try to find a place where they can talk privately.
“We try and provide that safe space where a student can share (their thoughts) as wholeheartedly as possible,” he said, adding that “it’s hard to ensure that confidentiality if you don’t know who’s around.”
Kaneohe Elementary Principal Derek Minakami expressed concern that the amount of referrals to Child Protective Services has “plummeted” since the pandemic forced most instruction to go online in March.
“It’s going unnoticed and hidden,” Minakami said, of potential abuse. “Usually we’re able to better spot when kids have been abused when they’re in person.”
“That’s a huge role that schools play that we don’t often talk about,” he said.
In Hawaii, most kids have spent the first two quarters of the school year learning from home. While vulnerable learners, students with special needs or those who lack internet at home have been coming back since the start of the year, 26% of all students, or 40,660, are still in all-distance learning, according to recent data compiled by the Hawaii Department of Education.
And though some schools are gradually bringing back more kids to the classroom under a blended in-person and remote instructional model, some 86% of all elementary-age kids — as well as 95% of all middle-schoolers and 98% of all high schoolers — are still doing most of their learning from home.
A byproduct of paused in-person learning, say youth advocates, is a steep drop in motivation and a growing inclination among some teens to resort to self-destructive behavior.
Adult Friends for Youth, a Honolulu nonprofit founded in 1986 that works with teens who have been cited for fighting or violent behavior, ordinarily would meet with youth at their high schools.
The teens were more likely to attend the sessions since they were already physically at school. “These kinds of kids don’t walk into our programs,” AFY President and CEO Debbie Spencer Chun said.
The group has been unable to hold school-based group counseling sessions due to the pandemic, but it has begun hosting smaller groups at its office near the Honolulu airport to give the youth some respite from their home environment, Chun said.
She said signs of anger and depression are more noticeable among the teens they serve, roughly 80% of whom are male.
“You can see it, they just lay around more, sleep more,” said Chun. “They don’t interact with many people and when they do — when the staff come they’re so excited.”
Now, many of them are talking about just dropping out of school and going to find work, she added. “We’re trying to convince people that if we don’t focus on these kids, criminal activity turns into a pipeline to prison. It’s just a vicious cycle that we fought so hard to prevent all these years.”
With a shuttle van marked with its logo, Adult Friends for Youth picks up teens from their homes, which include Kuhio Park Terrace or Kam IV Housing, brings them back to the center’s office and then takes them for a group activity.
On a recent Tuesday, a group of five boys wearing paper masks sat around long tables in the parking garage adjoining AFY’s office to create space for social distancing. The center normally serves groups of 15 to 20 teens at a time, but they’re limiting the size of groups due to COVID-19.
“We always have something fun planned,” said Malakai “Mo” Maumalanga, AFY’s director of redirectional services who benefited from the program himself in the 1990s. “They’ve already been struggling before COVID-19,” he adds of the teens. “You have COVID and it intensifies everything.”
In interviews, some teens spoke of their frustrations with the current school year. Two Farrington High students said when they do return to campus, they often just sit in the library, doing work on the computer.
Ngaselo Nethon, a 15-year-old freshman who one day wants to be a carpenter, is now going to school in person four days a week, but said that mainly consisted of computer-driven work at the library. He said he misses his teachers and the classroom.
He welcomes the chance to interact with others at the Adult Friends for Youth meetings.
“I like that we can chill with the staff, our group leaders. They take care of us. At the same time, make sure we do our work,” he said.
In 2018, Waipahu Elementary, which serves 975 kids including many from Filipino and Micronesian families who don’t speak English as their first language, had dramatically lowered its chronic absenteeism rate through home visits, phone calls and a closet stocked with clean clothes and shoes.
Now, Vice Principal James Suster said he’s worried about all the kids who have dropped off — again — during distance learning.
The school, which is part of the Pearl City-Waipahu complex area, is in full distance learning for the entire first semester through Friday, per a directive by the complex area superintendent, Keith Hui.
Waipahu Elementary staff make phone calls and, wearing masks to protect against COVID-19, still pay home visits to students who don’t show up for virtual classes, Suster said.
The average daily no-show list runs 60 to 90 names long. With many sixth graders still reading at only a fourth grade level, he worries about the longterm impact of the absent kids.
So far this year, the school has sent out 40 to 60 letters to warn families that their kids may be held back a grade level if they don’t start showing up for online classes. In a typical year, the school only sends out five such retention-warning letters.
Staff conducting home visits are able to help troubleshoot technical issues and gain an understanding of why students missed class. “A lot of times, it’s as simple as they’re not waking up in time,” Suster said.
Tanita, the Mililani Mauka school counselor, shudders at what expected cuts to the DOE budget in the coming year could mean for staff who often help students cope with mental health issues.
“All over the board, they are going to be struggling with less teachers, personnel, tutors, and sometimes less counselors,” he said. “I believe counselors are such a huge part of school as far as supporting students.”
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