Hawaii’s school superintendent on Thursday reaffirmed her decision to resume in-person learning at all schools in the fall, telling Board of Education members that lagging student performance this past year necessitates a return to standard instruction.
Outgoing school chief Christina Kishimoto said full distance learning will not be offered as an option by the time the new school year begins Aug. 3, although individual schools may offer the alternative in limited circumstances.
“Looking at the data this year, we agreed that the number one priority for us is to fully reopen,” she said during the meeting. “We don’t have to put (distance learning) options out there and not have a good outcome in terms of instruction.”
However, the decision received pushback from some in the education community. Some advocates pointed to parents with lingering concerns about sending their children back to classrooms as COVID-19 remains a threat or those who prefer a remote learning option after seeing their children thrive in that environment.
“Given the uncertainty of the virus, we think DOE should continue to offer a distance learning option at least until we have more clarity on the COVID-19 situation,” Cheri Nakamura, director of the He’e Coalition, testified.
She added the state education department poured enormous resources into offering distance learning during the pandemic, including procuring laptops and mobile hotspots for students, and that in some ways, “it bodes well in rural areas with limited resources and personnel.”
Kishimoto said schools may still offer a distance learning option for families depending on their capacity to provide teacher-led remote instruction. She implied that budgets and staffing are already a concern for the full operation of schools and said there were certain distance learning frameworks available, such as Blackboard Learn, Google Classroom and K12/Stride, should facilities have to close again due to COVID-19.
“Once we go into next school year, Acellus is not an option,” she added, referring to the severing of ties with the problematic online learning platform that many schools relied on in the 2020-21 school year.
But she was adamant that any individual remote-learning arrangement between schools and families must be built around explicit expectations, given learning setbacks this past year.
“One area of direction is, if you’re going to consider providing that, you need a compact with the parent and child that’s clear that if a child is not being successful, you need to monitor progress and attendance, and be told they have to come back,” she said.
Kishimoto’s concerns are grounded in state education data that show at least 10% of middle schoolers received a failing mark in math or English while at least 14% of high schoolers got a failing mark in those subjects according to third quarter grades entered in April.
Nearly a fifth of all students were at high risk of chronic absenteeism as of April 30, and up to a third of vulnerable students, including low-income or English language learners, were at high risk of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing at least 8.3% of school days this year.
Moreover, the fatigue of online learning caused a mass exodus from public schools this past year. There were 8,982 total student withdrawals through the third quarter across all DOE schools compared with 7,751 withdrawals the prior year.
“If families are directed to withdraw for homeschooling, Hawaii DOE would lose funds due to that disenrollment,” said David Miyashiro, executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN.
He also expressed concern that the DOE’s lack of a distance learning option means the pressure is on for parents to navigate a confusing system.
“The burden would be placed on parents to try and figure out directly from schools what the blended options would be,” he said. “My impression is that this could be a very difficult situation for parents to try to figure out what is being offered by schools.”
A May 14 letter from Kishimoto to principals directed that schools “will not be offering a full distance learning model as an alternative to in-person learning” for the 2021-22 school year although “distance learning may be an option if schools have to close due to unexpected emergencies or other student-focused circumstances as needed.”
But in the meeting, she floated the idea that if one complex area has a large number of families requesting distance learning, one school could be pegged to provide a distance option to all kids in that complex.
Currently, children age 12 and up are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. That has eased some of the trepidation on children returning to the classroom but vaccinations for children still remains a household to household preference since the state DOE has not mandated this as a prerequisite to returning to campus.
On the flip side, many parents flooded the board with written testimony on the hassles of their kids wearing masks at school, with some saying it was “psychologically damaging” or creating undue discomfort.
Current DOE guidance mandates mask-wearing on school campuses including in classrooms, school buses, cafeterias, during recess and when moving between classes. It’s not clear whether this is still expected to be the case when school resumes in August or if the guideposts will shift.
Some on the board asked whether the DOE could amend the mask-wearing policy on campus to account for outdoor activity.
“I still don’t understand why people get so upset about masks because I wear mine all the time anyway,” said BOE member Maggie Cox, but asked, “when doing sports or running around are kids going to have to still wear masks?”
Kishimoto said DOE officials were working with the state Department of Health to determine if there are situations where it’s safe to change the guidelines.
“Right now, we’re saying we’re status quo as far as the safety guidance in terms of Quarter 4,” she said.
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