Roxina Filrang knew even before the school year ended in May that she wouldn’t be sending her two sons back to the classroom despite a push by the Hawaii Department of Education for a return to in-person learning.

As long as the Covid-19 pandemic was still active, placing her children in a physical school environment was off the table, due to fears of her children being susceptible to the virus.

But even after telling school administrators well in advance that she needed a distance learning option this year, Filrang said her children were left in limbo as the school year began on Aug. 3.

“When I went to ask about it, (school officials) told me, ‘They’re on a waiting list. They have to come to class every day until there’s an opening.’ They said it’s in the hands of the state,” she said.

A student raises their thumb at Holomua Elementary School in Mr. Suan's 4th grade class.
Lots of families are still waiting to get into the DOE’s statewide distance learning program, which has limited seats. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Some two weeks into the new year for Hawaii’s public school system, many parents who refuse to send their children back to in-person learning because of health concerns are still in limbo due to a lack of available seats in a statewide distance learning program that was hastily assembled last month.

That means many kids are stuck at home with no formal schooling and losing precious instructional time.

Filrang’s 12-year-old eighth grader was finally accepted into the statewide program — Wednesday was his first day — but her 10-year-old fifth grader and first grade nephew remain on the waitlist.

To fill their days, Filrang, an independent contractor whose husband is currently deployed with the military, has tried to teach the kids practical skills in the garden and engaged them in Bible study.

“What we’re expected to do is wait for the state. It’s not a matter of what I’m going to do, it’s a matter of what they’re going to do,” she said. “If my kids repeat a year, fall behind, so what, they’re safe.”

Since May, the Hawaii Department of Education has been adamant that kids across K-12 grade levels return to physical campuses to stem any additional academic and social and emotional setbacks from the pandemic.

That has translated into a reduction in school-based distance learning options, with fewer than half of the 257 DOE schools extending such an option now. When schools were directed to focus on bringing all kids back to the classroom this year, planning for and providing a distance option became less of a priority.

Now, parental concerns and surging Covid-19 cases due to the aggressive delta variant are accelerating the demand for distance learning.

At least seven charter schools, which are public schools run by independent governing boards, already have switched back to fully virtual instruction following new positive cases on campus, but it’s unclear how or whether DOE schools could make a similar wholesale pivot without top-down direction.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,500 teachers, is also demanding that the DOE engage in a fresh round of negotiations to address teacher concerns about the safety of teaching in this environment, following reports of unenforced masking in schools, lack of adequate distancing and improper ventilation, among other things.

HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. said in a virtual press conference Wednesday that he’s not necessarily advocating shutting down schools wholesale, but wants to hold the DOE accountable to ensure safety protocols are in place, including contingency plans should schools experience a surge in cases.

“We have no recourse right now to say, what are we going to do about it?” he said, adding state leaders refused to negotiate a new memorandum of understanding with the union this school year that lays out members’ rights amid shifting circumstances by insisting all students return to campuses.

The statewide distance learning plan administered by the central DOE initially offered only a total 390 seats for all grade levels. As of Wednesday, 269 K-8 students have been accepted into the program, with another 159 on the waitlist. In the high school grades, 99 students are in the program, with another eight on the waitlist.

Interim superintendent Keith Hayashi said last week that the DOE is still trying to fill distance learning teaching positions after some withdrew their names at the last minute.

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi speaks at press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi said a lack of teachers for distance learning programs is contributing to delays. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The quicker we can get applicants in and hired, we can address those students who are not getting into the program,” Hayashi said Friday in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program.

As of Wednesday, the DOE has hired a total of 18 state-based distance learning teachers. “Based on current demand, we are looking to hire five to seven more,” department spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.

Kalani said students who are unable to attend school for whatever reason are “typically provided with make-up work to help keep them on-track.”

“The specific response for each incident would vary depending on the details of the situation,” she said. “In the event of a school closure or unexpected emergency, distance learning remains an option.”

Early Hiccups

Even for those parents who have managed to get their children into the distance learning program, the experience has been anything but smooth — and it’s become increasingly clear how active they will have to be in the learning process.

Joni Kamiya, an occupational therapist who works in the home health care industry, got her first grader into the statewide plan in time for the start of the new year. But it took a lot of finagling to secure a spot. “I had to make a lot of phone calls, fill out forms. It all happened the week before school was supposed to start,” she said.

Even after her son got in, it wasn’t clear what came next, Kamiya said.

Links to the Google Meet platform and log-in instructions were not set up in time and parents faced other “major technical glitches” in trying to get children online and completing assignments, she said.

“The sad thing is, the state wasn’t prepared to roll out the distance learning plan,” Kamiya said.

Clarice Smart got a geographic exemption that allowed her fifth grader to enroll in Maemae Elementary instead of her usual Kalihi school because she believed that Maemae had its own distance program. But the first day of the new school year came and went without any further instruction from the school.

On Aug. 6, she received an email from the school directing the parents to facilitate an assessment for their child to determine their skillset level. Soon, Smart came to realize the school’s distance learning plan was actually one and the same with the one offered by the state. A Zoom orientation for the distance-learning parents finally took place Aug. 9, Smart said.

“She’s enrolled, but technically I’ll be the teacher,” she said ruefully.

“I don’t understand how they offer a choice that’s not a real choice. They’re not organized yet.”

A distance learning page set up on the Maemae school site indicates the school is relying on the Stride K12 online program. There is no dedicated teacher to help with the instruction.

“This platform is a stand alone program and not necessarily the same material that teacher(s) are teaching in-person,” the page states.

Smart said her daughter was finally able to access the Stride K12 classes on Wednesday. But she wonders about the state’s reliance on parents to facilitate at home.

“That’s not a sustainable option for parents who work,” she said.

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