The superintendent of Hawaii’s public schools said Monday her goal is to have at least half of elementary school students back on campus in the fourth quarter, which begins on Monday, but schools won’t be fully reopened until next year.

The announcement by Christina Kishimoto signals that many public school students may pass an entire school year never having set foot on school grounds, due to restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although Department of Education officials assured the state Board of Education earlier this month that their goal was to have all elementary schools fully reopen to students on a daily basis by March 22, it appears — with only one quarter left after spring break ends this week — that plan was more aspirational than realistic.

“Our goal is to use this quarter to prepare for the summer and next school year, with the goal of 100% full (in-person learning) by next year. The next school year is where we’re hoping to have everyone back on campus,” Kishimoto told reporters in a Zoom call, referring to schools of all grade levels.

Lanai High and Elementary School, backpacks hang outside during limited in person class during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just 12% of all public elementary school students in the state are back on campus for in-person learning, according to the latest available DOE data. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Monday’s call happened three days after DOE officials struck a new written agreement with the Hawaii State Teachers Association on the conditions that must be met in order to bring more students back to classrooms in the fourth quarter.

Those include: providing at least seven days’ notice to staff before increasing the number of students back on campus; allowing teachers to work remotely when students are sent home due to COVID-19 cases on campus; enforcing consistent mask use, hand-washing and 6 feet of distancing to the greatest extent possible.

Teachers also should get at least two blocks of no less than 3½ hours of preparation time before schools begin bringing more students back.

The agreement, which will remain in effect through June 30, caps a long and often tumultuous year between the superintendent and the HSTA as education officials have had to balance the need to bring more students back to campus for their emotional and academic well-being with health and safety concerns.

The teachers’ union has also softened its stance as the pace of vaccinations has ramped up.

Corey Rosenlee, president of HSTA, told reporters Monday that new and updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on reopening schools, particularly for younger kids, combined with the low number of cases in Hawaii gives him confidence.

“We do believe it is time for more of our students to come to campus,” he said.

Rosenlee added he was also encouraged by the “vast majority” of the state’s 13,500 teachers getting vaccinated as one of the earliest priority groups in the state.

Different Reopening Plans

Each of the DOE’s 257 schools have different reopening plans, constituting a patchwork of various blended or hybrid learning models.

This means two elementary schools even in close proximity to each other — like Hahaione Elementary and Kamiloiki Elementary in Hawaii Kai — are offering two completely different reopening plans, despite being less than 3 miles apart.

Hahaione Elementary is back to full in-person instruction for all students while Kamiloiki was only open two days a week for in-person instruction to general education students before spring break and will continue that same schedule next week.

“It’s frustrating. They (Hahaione) were already at what we’re doing months ago,” said Noah Groothuis, a Kamiloiki parent. “It’s up to the principal. Each principal has their own little fiefdom.”

“We want the kids back,” the parent of two added. “I know safety is very important. But this idea you’re going to have zero (COVID-19) cases is ridiculous.”

Kishimoto, who has said she will be leaving her post once her contract is up on July 30, got support from an Oahu elementary school principal and a complex area superintendent for Hilo-Waiakea district who agreed that it’s best to let schools manage their reopening plans on an individual basis.

“Every school is going to be unique. Everyone is trying to be sure that safety is the upmost priority,” said Stacie Kunihisa, principal of Kanoelani Elementary in Waipahu. She also spoke about balancing families’ needs as well as the level of available staffing, bus transportation for students and other factors.

“It’s extremely critical to understand each school is designed differently and each principal is working this out (with their communities),” she added.

According to the latest available DOE data, about 12% of elementary students were participating in in-person learning, with the percentage dropping to just 5% for middle schoolers and 2% of high schoolers.

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