When school resumed last year amid the ongoing pandemic, Tiffany Reynolds had to make tough choices.

First, she withdrew her daughter from the sixth grade at a small private school, Christian Academy, incurring fees, because the school wanted all kids back for in-person instruction and she was not comfortable with that as an immunocompromised individual.

Second, she quit her job as a nurse to stay at home full time and assist her autistic son, then in fourth grade at Pearl Harbor Elementary, with remote learning.

Moanalua Middle School sign.
The Hawaii Department of Education has instructed all schools to offer in-person instruction for all students by the new school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Now, as she looks to the new school year, which begins on Aug. 3, Reynolds is faced with another difficult decision: what to do if her children’s school — they both now attend Pearl Harbor Elementary — won’t offer distance learning.

This is a quandary facing many Hawaii families after outgoing Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto gave marching orders to fully open all schools for daily, in-person learning in the fall, with little clarity on whether students will be given the choice of learning from home.

Although plenty of parents are relieved their kids will be back in school after a year and a half of juggling work and child care with online coursework, some families are wary of returning children to physical classrooms just yet due to health and safety concerns.

“For my medically fragile family, going back (in person) is not an option,” Reynolds said. “At the end of the day, it’s a pandemic.”

Parents Need More Information

In a May 17 letter to parents, Kishimoto pointed to the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, including for children as young as 12, and the plan to implement weekly COVID-19 testing at select pilot schools, as reasons for opening all schools at all grade levels by the start of the new school year.

But the message did not account for the fact that more than half of DOE’s student population, or about 101,000 children, are in grades K-6 and are too young to get a vaccine under the current vaccine authorizations.

The DOE has said individual schools may offer alternative methods of learning in limited circumstances but has not issued clearer guidance.

Kishimoto will step down after her term expires at the end of July. Keith Hayashi, who will take over as interim superintendent until a permanent replacement is found, has not said if he’ll make any changes to the in-person mandate. Board of Education members, however, recently indicated a willingness to consider more virtual options after facing pushback from some advocates and parents.

“I do not think we should be pushing students and families out of the public education system to home school for any reason, especially not because of health and safety concerns,” BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne said at Thursday’s meeting.

Honowai Elementary School Kindergarten teacher May Anne Kim’s classroom as she instructs students.
While the COVID-19 vaccine is currently available for children ages 12 and up, emergency use authorization is not expected to be sought for those younger until September at the earliest. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But home school is on the minds of parents like Reynolds, who said she could be forced to consider that route even though it would deprive her son of helpful built-in school services like speech therapy.

She said she’s asked the school principal to continue offering a distance learning option but hasn’t received a definite answer.

Parents need to know what’s happening in the fall, she said.

“We should not be on pins and needles waiting until the end of July,” she said.

Elsewhere around the country reopening plans differ: Los Angeles Unified will offer some sort of online option as it fully reopens schools by fall, as will schools in Houston. New York City schools so far will not.

Despite being fully vaccinated, Clarice Smart, a public health educator, has not sent her 10-year-old daughter back to the classroom even after her school, Kalihi Elementary, moved to a blended learning model earlier this year.

She is pondering whether to start home schooling in the fall, when her daughter starts the fifth grade. Smart said she encounters many adults who have chosen not to get vaccinated, making it likely their children won’t be either.

In Hawaii, roughly 56% of the total population is fully vaccinated, but the rates of vaccination vary from region to region.

“I work from home, so there’s that,” she said. “It’s not like there’s other options.”

Debate Over Benefits Of Distance Learning

Some school administrators are still working out what school will be like next year. 

Steve Nakasoto, principal at Mililani Uka Elementary, said he has spoken with his complex area superintendent about a possible distance learning option but didn’t provide more details.

“At this time, principals are working with their CAS to determine next year’s learning options,” he said, adding that most of the parents who participated in a survey at the end of the year indicated a preference for daily in-person instruction in the fall.

Campbell High is offering a full all-distance course of study for students who are independent workers and have at least a 3.0 GPA.

The superintendent has supported her push for schools to fully reopen by citing the academic setbacks of this past year, including failing grades, poor attendance in virtual settings or lack of mental health supports. The number of student withdrawals from DOE schools spiked to 8,982 by the end of the third quarter, compared with 7,751 at the same time last year.

Distance learning as students return to school via teleconferencing daily class lessons with their teachers during COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020-21 school year got off to an all-virtual start. This year, all schools have been asked to open in-person to all students. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

However, in recent written testimony to the Board of Education, some education advocacy groups called for the distance learning options to continue because they work better for some students.

Students with disabilities “actually performed better over the past year with access to quality distance learning,” the Special Education Advisory Council wrote.

This was due to things like control over what time they were learning, the pace of learning, less anxiety for kids who did not want to physically be at school, the ability to revisit material online, or better attendance for students who have transportation issues or have to care for relatives at home.

SEAC also wrote that all students should be “prepared for living and working in a digitized world as well as a world subject to future health and climate challenges.”

“The (DOE) should build upon the expertise they have gained in the last year to offer enhanced and more diverse instructional experiences to its students,” the group’s leaders said.

A Boost For Nontraditional Schools

The past year also has driven up interest in nontraditional schools from families who would not have considered the option before.

Hawaii Technology Academy, a public charter school with a campus in Waipahu, has had a blended virtual model for its K-12 students since its founding in 2006.

But for the first time this fall it will offer a completely virtual option for students after more than a quarter of its families said they would prefer that in a survey this past spring.

Among 1,400 students, 250 to 300 students will be in a full-virtual model in the fall, according to school leaders. Another 170 families are on the wait list.

The past year has seen dramatic spikes in enrollment across the school’s four campuses on Oahu, the Big Island, Kauai and Maui. On Maui for instance, enrollment is expected to rise 28% from 185 students in the 2019-20 school year, to 237 projected for next year.

HTA Associate Director Matt Zitello said more students are also choosing to remain at the school so it can only accommodate a limited number of new kids. “We’re getting a double whammy effect,” he said.

Marissa Veal Baptista applied to send all three of her kids, ages 10 to 13, to the tuition-free charter school in the fall. So far, only her 12-year-old son, a rising seventh grader, has been guaranteed a spot.

education, distance learning
Moanalua area parent Marissa Veal Baptista’s three children, ages 10, 12 and 13 are working on distance learning from their laptops. Courtesy: Marissa Veal Baptista

She wants to enroll all her children in the charter school’s online program because her youngest daughter is still not eligible to receive the vaccine.

Baptista, who recently joined the Hawaii Parent Teacher Student Association, is also frustrated that recommendations from a series of DOE-organized virtual work groups in which she participated to brainstorm ideas for improving the digital learning experience went nowhere.

“They’re always reverting back or making changes,” Baptista said of DOE decision-making. “There is no communication that comes out from the DOE directly to parents to inform them what their options are.”

If she can’t get her youngest daughter off the wait list and into the charter school, she may temporarily home school her.

“I’m not going to put her in a situation where she might get sick or bring that back to us. It’s not worth the risk.”

BOE Chair Payne introduced a resolution on Thursday acknowledging that in-person instruction is the preferred instructional delivery method for most students, but she urged the DOE to collect data on available distance options in the schools to make it easier for families to learn about their options without having “to call multiple schools only to be told that nothing is available.”

The board plans to act on the resolution at its meeting next month.

“As we know we’ll never go back to the old normal,” said BOE member Kaimana Barcarse. “The new normal will be different, we need to embrace that and find ways to advance.”

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