Hawaii Department of Education officials shared more information Thursday on how they plan to distribute federal funding to assist students who fell behind academically during the pandemic, but some Board of Education members said they were frustrated by the lack of specifics.

“I know this is just a draft but I’m a little dismayed that we’re just talking about summer school. What other kinds of things are we doing in terms of programs or opportunities that we need to offer our students?” board member Kili Namauu said at the monthly meeting.

She also questioned why the DOE doesn’t have more current data on which students are struggling the most in these disrupted times, whether Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, those on the neighbor islands or other student subgroups. The only data shared in DOE’s Thursday presentation was from the fall of 2020 indicating that nearly 30% of students in grade 5-8 are at least two grade levels behind in English while 36% of students in grades 1-4 are a grade behind in math.

DOE Board Member Kili Namau’u.
Board of Education Member Kili Namauu chaired the Student Achievement committee meeting in which DOE officials presented a plan for distributing federal pandemic aid. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I believe the department has not taken a deeper dive and looked into all the possibilities of all the opportunities to make a big difference in all our schools,” Namauu said. For instance, she proposed a home visitation program to investigate decreased student attendance or a “hub school with wraparound services” to accommodate kids who are struggling the most.

The DOE’s plan for so-called “learning acceleration” is part of a broader discussion on how to use roughly $639 million in federal aid, which includes $412 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that requires at least 23% of funds be reserved for addressing academic losses during the pandemic.

In August, the DOE provided a broad, initial sketch of plans for the federal funding, from tutoring support to transition programs for those entering kindergarten or middle school, but Thursday’s meeting offered little more detail.

Cheri Nakamura, the director of He’e Coalition, a group that advocates on behalf of public education, testified that the DOE plan to help students catch up academically and socially merely offers a “menu of resources for schools” without much more strategic planning.

“The plan does not give us confidence the money will be used in the best way possible to help our students,” she said. “It appears that it will be up to each school to implement its own strategies to address learning loss with the additional monies.”

Each school complex area in Hawaii has until October to submit a plan for how it plans to use federal pandemic aid, with the proposals to be backed by data on which students were most disproportionately impacted by the disruptions in learning.

The 15 geographic areas across the state will have to collect information from each of their schools on the highest priority academic, social, emotional and health needs to justify the amount of federal funds steered their way.

Once approved by the DOE, these plans, which are meant to jump-start so-called “learning acceleration,” will be implemented starting in December, according to a presentation DOE officials gave to board members on Thursday.

“The complex area superintendents are responsible for reviewing the school requests,” interim superintendent Keith Hayashi said at the meeting. The DOE defines learning loss as a “regression in student learning” and also “loss of opportunities that were available pre-pandemic,” he said.

Using this template, each complex area will have to list how schools plan to re-engage students to boost attendance this school year; how they will assess academic needs of students; how they plan to address social, emotional and mental health needs of students and staff; and how they will focus on health and safety concerns to continue with in-person learning.

DOE officials pointed to some programs that complex areas can tap into, including summer school. But other suggestions were vague, like “specialized student support,” “school learning hub” and “college, career and community learning.”

Addressing the board’s concerns, Hayashi said DOE officials recognize the urgency. He said that the schools have “systems in place” to support students. He added that his recent visits to schools on Maui, Hawaii island and Kauai have underscored the importance of continuing with in-person learning.

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