The Hawaii Department of Education has unveiled schools’ plans for distance learning options in the new school year but not all schools are offering one. Those that do will largely rely on an online program purchased by the DOE where families will serve as adult facilitators for the children since most teachers will only be doing the grading.

The department posted all of the distance learning plans by school and complex area on Wednesday to meet a Board of Education directive to make it easier for families to access the information. A table with those options indicates how each distance program will be facilitated, how much teacher participation will be offered and whether the school will accept “geographic exceptions” from families outside that district who wish to opt in.

For the most part, these plans will involve “a teacher of record for grading only” and will require a “caring/responsible adult at home who provides main facilitation.” But some schools may still have teachers offering live or recorded lessons or providing instruction for core content areas.

Holomua Elementary School students head to the cafeteria to enjoy lunch during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The superintendent has said all schools will open for full in-person instruction by the Aug. 3 start of the new school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But not all of the 257 campuses will offer a school-based distance plan “due to low demand or capacity,” according to DOE. That appears to include at least 98 schools around the state.

The superintendent said in May that Hawaii’s 257 public schools will reopen for full in-person learning when the new academic year begins on Aug. 3, with distance learning provided only in extremely limited circumstances. Exceptions may include families with medically compromised children, for example.

That restricted the options for many families whose schools weren’t planning to offer a virtual plan to switching schools or home-schooling.

Only those 12 and over are currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The state is also currently experiencing a spike in new coronavirus cases, partly due to a new contagious variant that has been circulating largely among those who have not had a shot.

“We’re in this conundrum,” said Marika Bertram, a parent to a rising second grade son and a daughter in kindergarten who attend a Kailua school. Her son is eligible to enroll in K-12/Stride — the DOE’s new choice of online curriculum — because he is medically compromised, but she doesn’t want to send her daughter to campus for fear of bringing COVID-19 home.

“Until he’s vaccinated it feels irresponsible to put them back into school. We don’t want to risk it,” she said.

The DOE purchased 5,000 student licenses from K12/Stride Inc. for an online curriculum approved for grades K-8. It will replace the Acellus Learning Accelerator this year as the go-to online learning option for families who prefer it.

“It could be either school/teacher-designed, especially if a school has a dedicated teacher, or, a curriculum via K-12/Stride,” DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said of the schools’ distance learning plans. “I don’t have a breakdown readily available.”

Not all of the DOE’s 15 complex areas have the capacity or demand to offer a distance program within their school sites, so in those cases the DOE will partner with these areas to pool resources and expertise and provide some kind of statewide option.

But even within those complex areas, distance learning might only be available to select students in select grade levels and families will have to work with school principals to see if their child is eligible to enroll.

Those complex areas include Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani; Hilo-Waiakea; Castle-Kahuku and Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui, which is offering distance learning for high school grades only. Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai and Kailua-Kalaheo will offer distance learning options for elementary grades only.

Additionally, the DOE said seats in such statewide options will be limited and available only “on a first come, first served basis.”

“Families interested in this state-based option will need to work with their child’s school principal to discuss eligibility criteria,” the DOE site says.

The state Department of Health is also expected to soon release updated guidance to schools on COVID-19 prevention measures for the return to campuses.

The DOH will revise school guidance “to align with the CDC’s updated K-12 guidance which was just released on July 9, and take into account best practices and lessons learned during the 2020-2021 school year,” DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr said.

For now, he said schools are implementing “four core strategies” — promoting vaccination for staff and eligible students, staying home when sick, requiring mask use and washing hands.

“Welcoming back our students to our campuses is the priority for all schools,” Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said in a statement. “We continue to work closely with the state Department of Health to ensure we have clear guidance and COVID-related data to inform decision-making for our schools.”

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