The Hawaii Board of Education on Thursday directed state education officials to formulate a distance learning plan before the new school year, giving them two weeks to figure out how to address the needs of families who still prefer virtual learning.

The task of figuring out how to provide a fully virtual option — or whether to do so at all — had fallen largely upon individual schools, with little guidance at the state or complex area level. So board members are asking the DOE to come up with solutions before the start of the school year on Aug. 3.

“The board understands it’s not possible for every school to do a distance learning option but it’s certainly possible within complexes,” BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne said after the meeting.

There are resources within complexes that can be temporarily deployed, such as assigning one teacher to virtually teach students grouped from several smaller schools within one complex, she noted.

Moanalua Middle School sign.
Hawaii public schools start the new school year on Aug. 3, with plans to welcome all students back for in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began in spring 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The DOE maintains 15 complex areas — geographic districts of high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them, overseen by one complex area superintendent.

Although Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has been adamant about the need to return to full in-person instruction by the new school year, it has been hard to ignore the steady drumbeat of families, union officials and advocates calling for some continuation of distance learning.

“Parents are in a terrible dilemma deciding between the safety and the education of their students,” Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, testified. “Efforts should have been made months ago to take the burden off the schools to solve these problems in isolation.”

With the more contagious Delta variant now prominent in the islands and the lack of a vaccine for children under 12, some parents have voiced hesitancy in sending their kids back to the classroom.

State education and health leaders have also reaffirmed their commitment to enforcing mask mandates on school campuses, despite recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that only unvaccinated students and staff need to wear masks indoors.

Although the original draft of the BOE resolution directed the Hawaii Department of Education to consider the feasibility of offering distance learning at the state or complex level, board member Dwight Takeno moved to amend the language to make it more forceful.

The final resolution, which directs the DOE to come up with a plan by July 29, passed unanimously during a special meeting about the 2021-22 school year. It also mandates the DOE to maintain a list of schools that plan to offer distance learning.

Kishimoto said the DOE would publish the information by next week, along with contact information for parents who want to switch to a different school through a geographic exemption.

Honowai Elementary School cafeteria with special UV-C lights hanging from ceiling.
Schools are still planning to enforce safety protocols like face masks and social distancing in communal areas, like cafeterias. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The good news is, the demand is low,” Kishimoto said, telling board members only 1% to 2% of families polled per complex area are seeking such a full virtual option, with the high reaching 5% in one area — the Kauai district.

“That’s the high end,” she said. “We are working with families to do this.”

The outgoing superintendent, whose term ends July 30, said one of the challenges of offering distance learning was the limited capacity of full-time teachers. If a teacher has to lead a virtual class, that hinders their ability to teach a regular classroom, she said.

“We’re certainly not looking to increase the number of students in classes, so it’s a careful balancing act of how we can stretch the capacity we have,” she said.

Board members clarified that their resolution does not direct teachers to simultaneously teach kids online as well as in-person, a burdensome task during the pandemic as teachers were often required to teach separate groups of students.

Families who prefer distance learning may still have access to a fully virtual program purchased by the DOE from K12 Inc., now Stride Inc., if their school happens to offer that option. But it’s a toss-up on whether kids who learn that way will also have the added benefit of an actual teacher-moderator who can facilitate such lessons. Otherwise, it’s self-directed.

The DOE spent $1.2 million to purchase 5,000 K12/Stride licenses for the period running from June 3 through May 31, 2022. Its content has been approved by DOE curriculum specialists for grades K-8.

Stride replaces Acellus, an online curriculum the DOE discontinued over inappropriate and offensive content.

Schools Making A Tough Call

Before the board meeting, some complex area superintendents had been standing firm behind a commitment to make virtual learning a limited exception.

“As a complex area, we decided some schools will offer it and some will not,” said Sean Tajima, complex area superintendent for Oahu’s Campbell-Kapolei district, on Wednesday — before the board passed its resolution.

“It does stretch teachers and schools thin, (and) it doesn’t provide the kind of education we can really stand behind,” he added. “Our schools have a lot of pride in what they provide and they want to provide the best possible, they don’t want to provide a second avenue just to accommodate students.”

Lanai High and Elementary School students arrive in the morning before school starts.
DOE schools enrolled 157,397 students last school year, about 9,000 students short of their enrollment projections at the start of the year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Families who didn’t have access to a distance learning program at their school could opt to homeschool or seek a geographic exemption to attend another school, Tajima said Wednesday.

“We had to make that tough call,” he said, adding the complex has so far not received that many GE requests for this reason.

The DOE faces the possibility of continued enrollment declines with the pandemic still active, though children are less likely than adults to experience serious illness if infected with the virus.

Last school year, the DOE enrolled 157,397 students — roughly 9,000 fewer students than it had anticipated at the start of the year.

Parent Jennie Gomes wrote to the board that her eighth grader and 10th grader, both of whom have asthma and one of whom has a heart condition, attend schools in Keaau on Hawaii island where there are no distance learning options yet.

She said she was told by school administrators her only option would be to homeschool.

“This is not an option really and I don’t think it’s quite fair,” she said.

Payne, the BOE chairwoman, said state education leaders need to come up with some kind of vision on how to provide a distance learning option for families like Gomes’, since this may be a longterm need for students moving forward.

“I don’t expect it to be perfect but I expect it to be clear,” she said of the report due July 29. “I feel if we don’t get something of a commitment in writing, it’ll be too late to get something done.”

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