After receiving unanimous approval to be interim superintendent, Keith Hayashi vowed Thursday to do his best to “ensure a smooth transition” as Hawaii’s schools reopen in the fall amid ongoing coronavirus concerns.

Hayashi, the principal of Waipahu High School, will take the reins of the state Department of Education on Aug. 1, just two days before the start of the 2021-22 school year. The transition time is so tight because current DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s contract expires on July 30.

Hayashi, who will earn $210,000 a year, said he is looking forward to working with leaders in all tiers of the education system, plus legislative members and industry partners who are integral to the budgetary and innovation processes.

Waipahu High Principal Keith Hayashi
Waipahu High Principal Keith Hayashi will take over as DOE interim superintendent effective Aug. 1. Screenshot

“We have a lot of work to do to open schools and my focus is on that to ensure a smooth transition,” the 56-year-old long-time school administrator said in a Zoom call with reporters shortly after the Board of Education voted to approve him. I am committed to ensuring that we do address effectively our students’ needs.”

A BOE committee in late May selected Hayashi for this role over four other finalists from a field of 14 applicants. A vote to approve that choice was put to the full board on Thursday.

As interim superintendent, Hayashi will be managing a massive organization of more than 20,000 full-time employees and a network of 294 public schools and roughly 174,000 students across the island chain. He also will be responsible for steering the full reopening of schools, after a year and a half of distance learning and blended in-person and virtual learning that caused academic setbacks and many social and mental health challenges for students.

Kishimoto in May directed all schools to offer full in-person instruction by the fall, with virtual learning offered only in limited circumstances upon request. But that mandate has been met with some resistance by education advocates and parents, particularly since children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

During a BOE discussion on Thursday, there seemed to be some opening for more consideration of virtual options.

Kishimoto said some schools and complex areas are in “deep discussion” about this possibility, while reiterating her stance that full in-person instruction was better for the student population at large.

“There are some students who can on their own go through a course of study with their own supports at home,” she told board members, “but that means they have social capital and supports many of our students don’t have.”

“Learning online has to be high quality. It can’t be partial,” she said.

It does not appear, for now, that Hayashi will deviate too much from the current DOE blueprint on school reopening. Asked if he’d be making any changes or adjustments to the full in-person mandate once he arrives, he said he thought it important to “reach out and touch base with the schools and see where everyone’s at.”

Asked how he might improve communication by DOE leadership to others in the broader education community, something Kishimoto was criticized for, Hayashi said it’s important to get “collaborative feedback and establish feedback loops.”

“We will be communicating with our leadership through the complex area to the school level and reaching out to school principals and school leaders,” he said. “I believe that communication is important in building positive relationships and trust.”

Hayashi, who is expected to serve in this role at least through spring 2022, is not precluded from applying for the permanent role of superintendent once that more comprehensive search begins in the fall. Asked if he’d be putting his name up for consideration then, he said he is “keeping his options open” but acknowledged that he would be interested.

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