When Nikki Kaneshiro’s kindergartener daughter was considered to be a “close contact” of a classmate who tested positive for Covid-19 a couple weeks ago, she was dismissed from her class and told by the teacher to stay home for the time being.

Kaneshiro decided to also pull her son out of his fourth grade classroom at the same school to lessen possible exposure to the coronavirus since they are all part of the same household.

The Ewa Beach parent decided to keep both children home until it was determined safe to send them back to class. That’s how both kids ended up staying home for three full school days.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School 6th grade teacher Corrie Izumoto’s classroom.
When students are sent home to quarantine, there is no clear recourse on how instruction continues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

While her daughter’s kindergarten teacher sent home worksheets and online videos to keep the girl engaged, her son’s teacher told Kaneshiro he had been “instructed to not send any work home to students whose parents choose to keep them home” due to Covid-19 concerns, the parent recounted.

“If you are letting all the siblings of these close contacts attend school, it’s going to take just one of these kids to be positive, and you’re just spreading (the virus),” Kaneshiro said.

Her son racked up three unexcused absences. And while his teacher was “apologetic,” he only suggested some apps for her special needs son to access on his tablet, according to Kaneshiro.

“We’re trying to keep (our kids) safe while keeping them in school, and if school is not an option, there should be an alternative source of learning, even if it’s just worksheets,” she pointed out. “Send the worksheets home — something other than, here’s the app we use in school.”

The inconsistency in providing instruction to students who are in quarantine due to possible Covid-19 exposures has emerged as another setback more than a month into the new school year as in-person classes continue amid a record number of coronavirus cases in Hawaii and an easing away from the remote learning that dominated the previous year and a half.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Covid vaccines are currently only available to those 12 and up, leaving a large portion of the state’s 159,500 students particularly vulnerable to the aggressive delta variant, which has fueled new cases among the young and unvaccinated.

Just under 57% of kids in the 12-17 age group in Hawaii are fully vaccinated, while 70% have at least one shot, according to the latest state Department of Health data. Among school staff, the DOE said that as of Aug. 31, 89% of nearly 22,000 active salaried DOE personnel are either partially or fully vaccinated.

State Department of Education officials have prioritized a return to campus but provided no cohesive, official fallback plan for when students are sent home to isolate for smaller chunks of time. The DOE has instead offered a limited number of longer term distance learning slots to children whose parents opt to keep them home because of health or other reasons.

Should quarantined children be offered remote instruction? Paper packets? An online program? It depends on which school the child attends.

Waialae Elementary Public Charter school staff Melanie Sumida assists with arriving students. Waialae Elementary started last week.
Hawaii DOE schools have logged more than 2,400 positive Covid-19 cases on campuses in a roughly 3-month period since July. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Like so many different things, it comes down to, it’s different at every school,” said Deborah Bond-Upson, a board member at Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, an education advocacy group that recently hosted a series of virtual talk story sessions to hear parents’ concerns around the islands.

“So many parents are grateful. They feel quarantine has been handled very well, they get notice in advance,” she said. “Other parents feel their kids didn’t get any work, and they don’t have anything (from the school).”

The DOE does not track how many students across its 257 schools have been quarantined since the school year officially started on Aug. 3, although it has logged more than 2,400 positive cases on school campuses since July.

A Covid-19 health and safety manual outlines the protocols for students considered a “close contact” at school.

Unvaccinated students and staff must quarantine for 10 days and get tested three to five days after exposure, while vaccinated students who don’t show any symptoms do not have to quarantine but should still get tested three to five days after exposure, the guidebook says.

However, there is no section on continuing instruction once a student is sent home.

At Jarrett Middle School in the Palolo Valley, principal Reid Kuba said all his teachers continue to post homework online “so students can access their homework anywhere.”

“We also have online programs that have always been required of students,” he said. “They can continue to also take care of those assignments if they needed to be out for an extended period of time.”

He added that counselors and teachers are “always reachable by phone, email, or WebEx to help students who are out.”

In other school districts around the U.S., there are fallback measures. Quarantined elementary-age students in New York City public schools, which start Sept. 13, will get live online instruction from teachers. The Illinois State Board of Education has ordered its school districts to offer remote learning to all quarantined students.

In Hawaii, parents such as Kaneshiro who voluntarily choose to keep a child home because they’re worried about transmissibility in the household have no obvious recourse.

“I don’t understand how in the school’s mind, the DOE’s mind, it makes any sense,” she said of penalizing siblings in close contact cases. “I wish there was a bit more leniency. In my situation, I feel the rules should have been bent,” she added, referring to her son’s unexcused absences.

Paul Taga, principal at Keoneula Elementary, where her children attend, did not respond to a request for comment.

At some private schools, changes have been built into the system this year. Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei said it will be “more flexible with our attendance policy” to account for community health concerns, and has increased the number of permissible absences to 25.

When there’s one positive case at the elementary level, the entire classroom will quarantine for 10 days and do synchronous virtual learning, according to parent Sheri Yasuna, who has two kids enrolled in the academy.

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi speaks during press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi told House lawmakers Wednesday he does not believe there is a current wait list on the statewide distance learning program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Assistant superintendent in the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design, Teri Ushijima, told school leaders they could rely on so-called “Learning Choice Boards” to help with “the continuity of learning while students are required to quarantine or resume learning at home.”

These “choice boards” cover English, math, science and social studies, with a total of “nine weeks of content,” she said in an Aug. 30 memo, which describes them as “one option to provide weekly supplemental learning opportunities for students in Pre-Kindergarten through high school.”

However, most activities, especially for younger children, rely heavily on the assistance of a parent or grown-up.

In an email Wednesday, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said remote learning options for students who have to meet quarantine requirements range from these choice boards to assignments via Google Classroom or Blackboard, to paper work packets or online programs, or virtually joining a classroom via Google Meets with the “chat” feature deactivated.

“Instructional model and delivery varies by school,” she said, adding that “frequency of the distribution of work would also be at the school’s discretion depending on the duration of the student’s absence.”

The state is already grappling with surging demand for distance learning seats, although education officials said there is no longer a wait list for the limited spots.

The program has 26 full-time teachers and one half-time teacher to serve 625 students “in partnership with 60 schools across the state,” Kalani said.

“As of today, all referred students are in classes with a teacher,” she wrote in an email on Tuesday. “There is no waiting list of students.”

During a virtual briefing to House education committee lawmakers on Wednesday, interim superintendent Keith Hayashi was asked if the statewide distance learning plan still had a wait list.

“Not that I know of,” he said. “I believe we have everybody in.”

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