At Holomua Elementary, the school year already has begun. Roughly 800 students reported to class at the Ewa Gentry neighborhood campus on July 8, ahead of the statewide public school start date of Aug. 3, in order to accommodate a large student enrollment.

The early start provides an example of how educators are working to help students catch up academically and emotionally after more than a year of distance learning while maintaining safeguards against the spread of the coronavirus.

The school maintains COVID-19 restrictions such as enforcing mask wearing at all times, and keeps students in small groups during snack breaks outside.

Holomua Elementary School students enjoy lunch with plastic barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Holomua Elementary School students enjoy lunch with plastic barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The cafeteria is outfitted with standing fans and benches are placed along only one side of the long tables. Individual plastic partitions separate students as they eat side by side, all facing one direction, like diners at a lunch counter.

Orange construction barriers are draped around every possible communal space: the playground area, benches, picnic tables, water fountains, even through certain slats on the bike rack so students don’t park their bikes too close together.

But the changes go deeper as teachers and administrators at Holomua and other schools emphasize the need to reengage students and rebuild connections to foster a positive learning and social environment after more than a year of isolation.

Holomua Elementary, which has phased semesters for more than 1,100 students, is including a program known as “Choose Love” in its curriculum for the first time this year to teach qualities like mindfulness, compassion and empathy toward one another.

“We’re very cognizant of the impact that the pandemic has created in terms of students being virtual,” the school’s principal, Gary Yasui, said. “(At) the forefront is not just going to be academics, we have to keep in mind there will be a social, emotional need.”

Holomua Elementary School students line up after recess.
Holomua Elementary School students line up after recess. The school year for the multi-track school began July 8. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Though many students began returning to the physical campus in January — with some elementary schools fully reopening by spring — the new school year signals the return of mandatory in-person instruction at all grade levels in Hawaii.

“For me as a teacher, that is my first priority, social and emotional well-being, checking in with them, giving them a space to express themselves in a place where they have people who will listen,” said Cecilia Chung, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Honouliuli Middle School in Ewa Beach.

Chung plans to work with her students on forming “community agreements” to allow student input in what the upcoming year will look like as well as having as many individual conversations with students as possible.

“If students really want to get their hands into experiential learning and express themselves, they need to be comfortable,” she said. “It’s about rebuilding confidence in our kids.”

The Hawaii Department of Education has encouraged schools to teach civility and kindness but how and to what extent is largely up to individual schools. More schools are recognizing the need to focus on this facet of education after the trying year of the pandemic.

Students were not only separated from peers and teachers but also may have gone through upheaval at home, whether it was having to work to supplement their family’s lost income, taking care of younger siblings at home or trying to learn without a quiet place to study during the day.

“We’re going to have to find ways to make it up in kids who suffered during this time,” said Sean Tajima, complex area superintendent for the Campbell-Kapolei district. “The added part, more than this, is the social, emotional state of our students — we’re not used to assessing that.”

Catching Up

Statewide data shows that at least a quarter of students, or roughly 40,400, were still participating in full-virtual instruction by the end of the last school year on May 28. Another three-quarters of students, or 115,500, were in a blended model, meaning they occasionally attended classes in person but otherwise learned from home.

Children in elementary school comprised the largest group of students who were fully back in school by the fourth quarter of last year, at 36%, followed by 8% of middle schoolers and 5% of high schoolers.

A student raises their thumb at Holomua Elementary School in Mr. Suan's 4th grade class.
A student raises a thumb at Holomua Elementary in a fourth grade classroom where desks are spaced 6 feet apart. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Data from the past year shows the impacts of remote learning: an average of 22% of all students were at high risk of being “chronically absent,” or missing 15 or more days of the school year, up from 15% in past years. That figure rose to 30% for “vulnerable kids,” which includes children from low-income families or nonnative English speakers.

Furthermore, English and math “screener” tests for grades 1-8, taken last fall at the start of the school year — when kids had already experienced an academic quarter of pandemic disruption — showed that 23% of elementary school students were behind grade-level expectations and 40% of middle schoolers were behind grade-level benchmarks.  That figure fluctuates per complex area, with some rural areas of the state seeing more than half of middle schoolers lagging behind grade-level expectations.

Such a dismal showing is why the outgoing superintendent, Christina Kishimoto, has been so adamant about returning to full-time, in-person instruction this fall. Virtual instruction will be available in only limited circumstances for health needs, although the DOE has been tasked with coming up with more wide-ranging distance learning plans before the new school year.

Only about 1%-2% of families per complex area had expressed a preference for distance learning, the superintendent recently told Board of Education members.

As the new school year begins, school administrators are trying to take things one step at a time.

Holomua Elementary School Principal Gary Yasui.
Holomua Elementary School Principal Gary Yasui says educators have to address social and emotional needs as well as academics. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In a show of gratitude to families for placing confidence in the staff to keep the campus safe, Holomua decorated a nearby fence with multicolored cups that spell out, “Thanks Families, You’re Our Stars.”

“I’m not going to make any promises — that no student will get sick,” Yasui said, adding that only a few families had opted not to send their children back to the classroom. “But we let them walk around, converse with their friends, because that’s why they’re here.”

When it comes to older kids, the need to engage is no less important.

Karly Lynch, a tenth grade biology teacher at Pearl City High who also teaches AP Biology to juniors and seniors, said she will start the school year by asking how each of her students experienced the pandemic.

“Not every single student has had the same experience,” she said. “I think the job of any teacher this year is to recognize all those different experiences and understand the learning or the lack of learning that happened, not just in the cognitive sense, but just the environment they were in.”

Lynch said that knowledge will go a long way toward understanding how students’ learning habits may have shifted over the past year. For instance, those who largely had to manage their own learning from home may feel “micromanaged” once they are back in the classroom, while those who had to tend to younger siblings at home may feel overjoyed to reclaim their own learning space at school, she said.

“This past year has made us realize the importance of connection,” she said. “Understanding how the last year impacted them will inform instruction.”

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