Kids who miss school because of officially directed quarantine or isolation from Covid-19 will have their absences marked as “excused” under an updated attendance policy from the state Department of Education.

Students who are sick, recently tested positive for the coronavirus or had potential exposure to someone else who did must quarantine for 10 days and get tested three to five days after exposure, according to the DOE’s health and safety handbook.

Schools previously had no mechanism to note that a student had to stay home due to quarantine or isolation at the direction of school leaders. That left kids vulnerable to a potentially long string of unexcused absences that could lead down the path toward truancy or even chronic absenteeism.

The DOE offered clarity in a Sept. 15 memo issued jointly by the office of student support services, office of information technology and the office of strategy, innovation and performance.

“A new attendance code has been created … for schools to use for students who are absent due to state-direct quarantine or isolation,” it said.

Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School 6th grade teacher Corrie Izumoto’s classroom with physically distanced desks.
The DOE issued a Sept. 15 memo updating its attendance policy to account for all the absences accrued when a student has to quarantine from school due to being a close contact of someone who tested positive for Covid-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The fix revolves around a new “QUA” code available in the drop-down menu of the electronic student information portal known as Infinite Campus, which is used to track attendance and grades.

“Quarantine” also has been added to the DOE’s official attendance policy manual. It is defined as “a process for a student who has been exposed to infection to separate and restrict their movement for a period of time to see if they become sick.”

Before, illness was naturally an excused absence. But quarantine doesn’t necessarily mean a student is sick — just that they were ordered to stay home until it’s safe to return.

Quarantine Confusion

However, the DOE’s new attendance policy did not address whether families who voluntarily withdraw their children from school out of health or safety fears outside of official guidance — because a sibling in the same household might be a close contact, for instance — will also get excused absences.

The issue came up during a Sept. 8 legislative briefing with the DOE and the House Education Committee. Rep. Justin Woodson, who represents parts of Maui, including Kahului, said he had been hearing reports of truancy letters being sent home in this new Covid environment.

“There’s truancy and then there’s chronic absenteeism,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that tackles the issue of chronic absenteeism by examining equity gaps. “Truancy is when you miss too much of school, based on the number of unexcused absences.”

“If that continues to happen, the school is supposed to meet with you, but it (can escalate) into the courts system,” Chang added.

Woodson also asked a DOE assistant superintendent, Heidi Armstrong, whether cases of parents opting to keep kids home due to Covid exposure fears would be “excused or unexcused” absences.

Rep Justin Woodson DOE hearing.
Rep. Justin Woodson chairs the Education Committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Armstrong replied that the DOE would be “putting together guidance for all the specific scenarios.”

But the Sept. 15 memo only addresses the one specific scenario of “state-directed quarantine or isolation.”

“Our hope was that this guidance would include multiple scenarios on how and why students would be quarantined, and what the learning expectations would be,” said HawaiiKidsCAN executive director David Miyashiro.

“Overall, parents deserve reassurance that their kids will continue learning and receiving support from their schools in case they voluntarily quarantine or are required to do so, and it is concerning that the Hawaii DOE’s memo from September 15 lacks the level of detail that families should expect,” he added.

‘Minimal Expectations’

Hawaii public schools, serving 159,500 students this year, are nearly two months into the new school year. The DOE is determined to keep kids back in class to avoid further disruption after more than a year of distance learning during the initial phases of the pandemic.

But the path to normalcy has been bumpy as the delta variant pushed a surge in new cases and the central administration failed to offer many contingencies to help students who have to stay home but no longer have a guaranteed remote curriculum. In addition to confusion about attendance, the DOE has faced criticism about the lack of remote instruction.

At a Sept. 16 Board of Education meeting, interim superintendent Keith Hayashi said there are options like paper packets and emailed materials and pointed out that not all students in all regions of the state have the same access to the underlying supports needed to complete such distance work — such as internet connectivity at home or a device.

He said he is working with school principals and the DOE leadership institute to “look at the different strategies (across schools) when students are in quarantine to bring greater consistency statewide.”

“From those discussions, the minimal expectations will be set,” he said.

Distance learning as students resume classes using Chromebooks to attend their daily lessons from 8am to 2pm.
Students who have to quarantine and want to access digital materials will need a computer and some kind of internet connection to complete work, interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi noted. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

At that same meeting, deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami, said the DOE is trying to avoid pushing a “one-size-fits-all” solution for families, though some parents just want a solution.

“We’re not sure of everything that’s going on at home,” she said.

Other school districts around the U.S. also have to contend with the same issue of students who can’t be in school due to quarantine, but they have come up with some clear delineations for now. Baltimore County Public Schools, for instance, is differentiating between students who are part of an entire class of excluded students versus those who are not, and assigning remote work accordingly.

Such options include asynchronous work, virtual instruction with a teacher or school-based tutoring through Google Meet.

Even with the new attendance policy updates, the DOE will continue to measure chronic absenteeism as missing 15 or more days out of the school year — both excused or unexcused absences. But a student may be exempted from being assessed against this metric if they provide a health care provider note saying the student was absent 11 or more consecutive days “due to a medical or psychiatric illness.”

In this year’s Strive Hi performance review, the state-designed school improvement and accountability framework, school leaders will also have the chance to share any unique challenges their schools faced during the pandemic, according to an information sheet.

“We need to ensure we’re using chronic absenteeism data to engage in outreach, engagement and positive problem solving,” Chang said. “What you don’t want to use this for is punitive action.”

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