Wahiawa resident Terri DeAsis was initially apprehensive upon hearing how the distance learning option offered through her 10-year-old daughter’s school would be structured.

This would not be a standard online curriculum based at Iliahi Elementary but a complex area-wide program including kids at the other K-5 schools within its boundaries, from Leilehua to Mililani to Waialua.

Students in the virtual program — called the Pineapple Academy — would come from different schools, but teachers would be from Daniel K. Inouye Elementary, with one assigned to each grade level with roughly a dozen kids per class.

“This was very foreign to us,” DeAsis said.

Aliiolani Elementary School students wait outside classrooms before the start of the first day of school during a COVID-19 pandemic.
Public schools have reopened with most students back in classes, but many parents are still waiting to get on the statewide distance learning plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Several days into the new school year, which for most public schools began on Aug. 3, DeAsis is relieved that she secured a spot for her daughter in Esther Kwon’s virtual fifth grade classroom.

“We’re in uncharted waters right now, so to receive that welcome from the teacher was really refreshing,” she said. Last school year, DeAsis decided to home-school her daughter, who has a medical condition.

The new online academy, which has about 70 students so far, is offering a unique approach to distance learning as educators try to balance the Hawaii Department of Education’s emphasis on in-person learning with the desire of many parents to keep their children home amid the ongoing pandemic.

Teacher Led

Planned since spring, it features Hawaii teachers who lead lessons and discussions similar to those taught in a classroom.

All schools were forced to go online after the pandemic began early last year. To facilitate student learning, many relied on an online program called Acellus Learning Accelerator, but it proved problematic and was phased out.

This year, the DOE bought licenses for a new online curriculum called Stride K12. But there’s still no uniform approach to distance learning, with few schools offering a program that involves actual teachers who are guiding students.

The Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua complex area had faced demands for a more comprehensive distance program even before the pandemic. Three of its elementary schools are on military bases and have high student turnover yearly.

As a result, many parents home-school their children rather than enroll them in area schools for a short period, according to Bob Davis, the complex area superintendent.

Twelve out of 14 elementary schools in the complex area are participating in Pineapple Academy. The other two already had developed their own plans.

“We were already anticipating we would have to have something (online) starting this year,” said Yuuko Arikawa, Inouye Elementary’s principal. “Instead of working on the same initiative separately, we thought, why can’t we work together?”

Participation in the program is strictly limited to students in the complex area. Students remain enrolled at their home school so they can participate in that school’s activities or extracurriculars, if they wish.

Kids are admitted into the academy, which is free, based on health concerns and how well the student performed last year in distance learning plus a parent’s ability to be an active learning coach.

“We have got to be allowed as schools and complex areas to have our own design,” said Davis. “This wasn’t anything spur of the moment, it didn’t come from the Board of Ed meetings, it was something we wanted to create in LMW for our LMW students.”

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi speaks during a press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi has emphasized the need to bring students back to campus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Virtual instruction has largely taken a back seat this school year after DOE and health officials prioritized the full return of students to classrooms following the academic and social setbacks suffered in the past year and a half of the pandemic, with many students falling behind or dropping out altogether.

Given the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine for those 12 and up and school safety measures, health officials — nationwide and locally — have insisted it’s better for kids to be back at school for their academic and social and emotional well-being.

But the Hawaii DOE may have miscalculated exactly how high the interest would be for an online option this year, especially with a new spike in coronavirus cases driven by the aggressive delta variant.

Though former superintendent Christina Kishimoto told Board of Education members in mid-July interest in distance learning was on the low range at 1 to 2% across complex areas, some regions like the Campbell-Kapolei complex area have a 3% rate of interest, deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said earlier this month.

Many households were still opting for full distance learning by the end of last school year, according to a DOE dashboard. In the Leilelua-Mililani-Waialua complex area, that included 16% of students — compared with 26% of students statewide.

With distance learning plans in short supply at the school level, the DOE was forced to draw up a statewide option at the direction of the Board of Education, just days before the new school year started.

Parents must commit for the entire school year and extracurricular activities or sports offered at the child’s home school is strictly off-limits.

Those statewide seats are extremely limited amid high demand. Earlier this month, DOE officials told state lawmakers that 460 students are enrolled in the statewide distance plan while another 146 are on a waitlist.

“We’re still in the process of hiring more teachers for positions,” Unebasami said at the Aug. 5 hearing. “As we get those teachers on board, we can open up more seats.”

A Federal Grant Sets Things in Motion

Inouye Elementary, located on Schofield Barracks, was on the vanguard of virtual learning long before “COVID” became part of the everyday vernacular.

Under former principal Jan Iwase, the school obtained a Department of Defense grant that enabled it to try out hybrid virtual learning in the 2013-2015 school years.

Fourth and fifth grade students came to school two and a half days a week and learned from home the rest of the time. Teachers put the entire self-created curriculum online and the kids adapted really well, Iwase recalled.

“I think the kids have to have that experience of being self-directed and actually working on projects with others,” Iwase said. “It doesn’t have to be in-person, it can be virtual. It can be very successful.”

Honowai Elementary School 4th grade teacher Dalen Izumo with large monitor and students using laptop computers.
Last school year, many teachers had to do simultaneous instruction for remote and in-person students. The new virtual Pineapple Academy relies on dedicated distance learning teachers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Inouye teachers got technological training, making it easier to shift to online instruction last year while some other schools struggled to adapt to the sudden new environment.

“The technology shift was not an extreme curve for us,” Arikawa said. “While it is not for everybody, we honestly saw some students thrive in this setting.”

Teachers who staff Pineapple Academy did so as well. They can telework, working some days from home and some days at the school.

Each day, DeAsis’ 10-year-old daughter is joined by nine other students in Kwon’s virtual classroom.

They log onto Webex at 7:50 a.m. and get 10 minutes to chat freely with each other before the official school day starts.

To foster a sense of community, Kwon encourages her kids to yell out their home school when they introduce themselves to the class by name.

One consistent requirement is that students show their faces on the screen to encourage peer connections, she said.

The day unfolds with a mix of teacher-led instruction for a social emotional curriculum and blocks of time reserved for independent study for core subjects. Overall, there is about three hours of live instructional time each day, plus office hours.

“It’s definitely a new collaboration, we’re trying a new thing,” said Kwon. “We want to be successful in order for this to continue.”

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