Several days shy of the start to the new school year, the Department of Education sent notice to school leaders Wednesday outlining a new statewide distance learning plan for families with pandemic-related health and safety concerns or those who want distance learning for other reasons.

Coordinated by the central administration, the plan will be extremely limited in both enrollment and scope. The number of distance-learning seats is capped at 390 total — 180 for elementary schools, 90 for middle schools and 120 for high schools — in a total DOE student population of roughly 161,000.

That is about 0.2% of the student body. Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has said most complex areas had seen a 1% to 2% preference among households for distance learning, although this could rise due to fears over a highly contagious variant circulating in Hawaii and elsewhere in the U.S.

Iliima Intermediate School.
DOE formulated and released the distance learning plan at the direction of the Board of Education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“We are still hearing from parents who are concerned about unvaccinated elementary children, coupled with the rise in cases,” Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne said. “Schools are struggling with resources and they are not always able to meet parent requests.”

In a July 28 letter to principals and complex area leaders, Kishimoto urged administrators to remind families about the planning and preparation for the full return of students to DOE campuses by Aug. 3, the official start of the new school year.

“Please continue to communicate with your families the importance and benefits of access to a complete school experience for their children and that schools are ready to safely welcome students back to campus,” she wrote in the memo.

The Board of Education had directed DOE officials at its July 15 meeting to come up with a statewide distance learning plan by Thursday as an alternative for families still wary of sending their children back to in-person school because of the pandemic, which has produced elevated numbers of cases in recent weeks.

All 257 schools, most of which had spent the 2020-21 school year in either all-distance learning or a hybrid model, were directed in May to prepare for the full return of students by the fall.

Many parents were told by their children’s school that a school-based distance learning plan would not be an option for the upcoming school year.

That meant having to either disenroll their children, home-school them or find another option, such as requesting a placement or seat in a different geographic district, which is not a guarantee due to space limitations or other restrictions.

Last week, the DOE released a chart of 118 schools that do plan to offer some kind of school-based distance learning but those plans are largely self-directed based on the K12/Stride Learning Solutions online curriculum purchased by the department for the new school year.

But some complex areas — each of which includes a high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it — aren’t able to offer distance learning within their individual schools, due to lack of demand or resources, the DOE said.

This new statewide distance plan is largely geared toward those populations.

Those complex areas include: Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani; Kailua-Kalaheo; Castle-Kahuku; Hilo-Waiakea; Baldwin-Kakaulike-Maui; Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai and Kauai-Kapaa-Waimea for elementary grades and Campbell-Kapolei for high school grades.

Distance Plan Has Limited Offerings

The respective distance learning plans at the elementary, middle and high school levels also appear to be based largely on the K12/Stride curriculum, with one designated teacher per elementary and middle school grade level to host small group weekly check-ins and “provide support during synchronous learning.” There will also be one designated teacher per core subject area at the high school level.

These seats will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The DOE memos also emphasize the restrictions.

For instance, enrolled students will not have access to any extracurricular activities at their home school nor can they attend assemblies or access such things as the library, school sports fields, the gym or labs. High schoolers can enroll in only “pre-determined” electives.

Front entrance to the office administration building at Ilima Intermediate School with COVID-19 warning precautions. July 27, 2021
Parents can apply to have their children in distance learning for a variety of reasons, including a child’s underlying health conditions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

However, distance learning students at all grade levels can receive grab-and-go school meals from their enrolled school.

The child’s regular school still has to meet certain obligations, like making sure the student has access to a computer and internet connection, as well as tending to any discipline issues and monitoring the student’s progress.

Parents must sign an agreement that essentially waives their child’s right to activities such as clubs, band and sports.

Deciding who gets to participate will be left to each school principal after parents submit a request form. Admission will also require an initial conversation and an evaluation of how well the student fared last year in distance learning. Parents can appeal to the complex area superintendent should the principal deny a request.

Legitimate reasons for distance learning include if a parent “does not feel comfortable” sending their child back to campus; if a student has an underlying medical condition and is at high risk for serious illness; if the student performed well academically, socially and emotionally in distance learning last year; or students want to access courses from an outside school or complex area that they can’t get from their regular school.

It’s not clear yet whether the DOE will be designating distance-only teachers and who would be eligible to teach such classes. The department did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’ve had a lot of teachers who have been doing this (online teaching) in the past year, who’ve expressed the desire to continue,” said Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “This is the way of the future, and it’s unfortunate they don’t seem to have options.”

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