The week before Thanksgiving, Oahu high school student Yanhang “Ian” Zhang returned to his high school campus for the first time in eight months.

The Roosevelt High senior began his day as he might any other school year: he woke up at 5:50 a.m., made breakfast, then slipped out of his home near the Aloha Tower to catch TheBus to get to the Makiki campus for his first 8 a.m. class.

But things were also noticeably different. Students were not allowed to arrive on campus before 7:30 a.m. to comply with COVID-19 restrictions against clustering. School lunch consisted of a grab-and-go meal, which Zhang ate in a nearby park after his day ended, earlier than usual, at 12:30 p.m.

One other thing: Zhang, 18, was the only student in the room in four of his classes and among just a handful of kids in the others. And they were all on the computer anyway so the teacher could talk to the students at home at the same time.

Yanhang Ian Zhang, Roosevelt High, school, classroom, distance learning, return to school
Yanhang “Ian” Zhang, seen here at home in the downtown area, is a senior at Roosevelt High who gave up on in-person instruction after only three days since he would often be the only student physically in the classroom. Photo courtesy David Chin

“It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s in class or not, they interact the same way,” Zhang’s stepfather, David Chin, said last week during a Zoom interview. “That’s like the worst of both worlds: you have people who are in class and potentially passing around coronavirus and yet you’re only interacting with them as if you were online only.”

This is the new conundrum that’s emerging as Hawaii’s public schools stepped up efforts to bring kids back to campus in the second quarter of the school year beginning Oct. 12, after several months of all-distance learning for most students beginning in spring of last school year.

The Hawaii Department of Education has said getting kids back to the classroom is a “high priority” as it has become clear that the system of distance learning developed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is failing many students.

But while more schools begin inviting students back into the classroom, it’s clear the transition won’t be so seamless.

“We do see a widening of the performance gap between those students who can learn online and those who are having a hard time,” Gov. David Ige said Friday during a virtual interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters.

Teachers are catering to their online and in-person kids simultaneously, aware they can’t devote undivided attention to either group separately.

“I feel I’m not giving either group 100% of what they need from me,” said Megan Matsuzaki, a fourth grade teacher at Kaneohe Elementary. “I want to do my best for all of my students, whether they’re in the classroom or online.”

A data dashboard recently published by the DOE showed just how deeply the impacts of distance learning have cut. About 10% of all secondary school students in Hawaii got a failing grade in core subject areas in the first quarter ending Oct. 2. About 25% to 30% of high schoolers received no first quarter grade at all, due in part to “insufficient evidence” of their progress in class.

Additionally, nearly 1 in 5 elementary-age kids received “well below proficiency” marks in English, while about 1 in 10 kids got “well below proficiency” grades in math in the first couple of months of school.

“We do see a widening of the performance gap between those students who can learn online and those who are having a hard time.” — Gov. David Ige.

The DOE has left the reopening decision and framework largely up to individual principals on its 257 campuses, leading to an uneven landscape.

Roughly a quarter of all K-12 DOE students, or 40,660 students, are still doing all-distance learning — and many won’t step foot back into the classroom until at least January, or later, depending on their school.

At the elementary school level, 10,666 elementary students, or 14% of that population, have returned to the classroom full-time, according to the data dashboard. Just 1,664 middle schoolers, or 5%, have done the same, while only 973 high schoolers, or 2% of that total group, are back in class full-time.

Roosevelt High, with a total enrollment of 1,465, has restricted in-person participation to 400 students, separating them into two groups of 200, dubbed “Red Group” or “Gold Group,” the school colors, so they’re on campus on alternating days.

“Participation in the gradual return is optional,” states a notice on the school’s website.

Zhang, who moved to Hawaii from China last December, was excited to meet more friends and practice English at school. He was eager to return to campus as soon as possible but decided after three days of in-person instruction to go back to full-distance learning from home.

“If my classmates come back to campus more, I think I will come back to campus,” Zhang said in a recent Zoom call. “I can talk to them. I just came to (America) last year. I want to make some friends, make more friends.”

And besides, said the teen, he can use the time he would have spent commuting to and from school working on his assignments.

If Schools Reopen, Will Students Come?

The number of new COVID-19 cases has remained relatively stable across Hawaii over the last couple of months, despite a relaxing of a mandatory two-week quarantine for visitors who get tested before travel and the passing of group-centric holidays like Thanksgiving and Halloween.

Still, many parents are wary of sending their kids back to the classroom too soon.

When Kaneohe Elementary offered that some kids could come back to school once a week a few weeks ago, Jill Tokuda, a former state senator and mother to a fifth grade student, jumped at the chance. Her son, too, was initially the only student in his classroom in a class of about 25 to 30, but Tokuda stuck with her decision.

“Just having that one day a week to me has been very valuable to make sure he’s keeping up,” she said, adding that it’s important to have a teacher there to check in with him instead of “mom bugging you, ‘Have you done all your work?’”

For teachers, juggling the in-person and remote instruction is like managing two different classrooms, which is why students might need to interact the same way.

Kaneohe El, student, classroom, distance learning, education, school
Megan Matsuzaki, a fourth-grade teacher at Kaneohe Elementary, teaches students in her classroom and online as students gradually come back to campus. Courtesy of T. Shigezawa

Matsuzaki has had about three kids back in her physical classroom so far. They use the school-issued Chromebooks while the rest of her students join online at the same time.

“There were other families that are anxious for their kids to come back to school,” she said.

Matsuzaki sits facing her in-person students from her desk and makes it a point to make eye contact with those students throughout the lesson, though she’s addressing the larger online class.

Other teachers have noticed a marked difference in mood among kids who have returned.

“When they come to school, it’s like they’re in a different space, a different mindset,” said fifth grade Kaneohe Elementary teacher Bella Finau-Faumuina. She teaches the online students while a co-teacher helps out with the in-person students.

On the first day they could come back to school, the instructor had only three students physically return. Though they were a little shy, some parents texted her that their kids told them “it was the best day ever!” Finau-Faumuina said.

Ben Cottingham of the Policy Analysis for California Education, a research organization at Stanford University, said he has heard similar stories of bifurcated classrooms where some students are physically present while the rest are online.

Cottingham, a former teacher who now helps California school districts adapt to distance learning, said being back in the classroom can be beneficial for students from a social-emotional learning perspective even if they’re alone, although he acknowledged that teachers often end up “doing double duty.”

Teaching models have to continue to evolve, he said, “otherwise it will burn people out.”

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