Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, some Hawaii families who decided to pull their kids out of the public school system amid frustration over classroom closures and prolonged virtual learning are standing by their decision to turn to alternatives, despite the financial sacrifice.

Cherise Stalcup’s daughter was attending a Kaneohe elementary school when the school said at the start of the 2020-21 school year that it would continue with virtual learning for an indefinite period due to fears of coronavirus spread.

Stalcup withdrew her daughter from Kapunahala Elementary and enrolled her at the private Saint Mark Lutheran School, where tuition runs $955 a month, or about $9,500 annually.

“We don’t have enough income to do repairs on the house, but I feel education is a priority, so for me, that’s acceptable,” said Stalcup, a registered nurse who is depending on her ex-husband to support half of her daughter’s tuition.

Saint Mark Lutheran School student Kayla Stalcup.
Saint Mark Lutheran School student Kayla Reis was previously enrolled at Kapunahala Elementary but started at the private school in Fall 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Kayla Reis, a fifth grader, is thriving, her mother said, playing the saxophone in band and participating in a reading program at Saint Mark. At her previous school, she barely received homework and frustrations mounted due to the lack of in-person contact with teachers and peers, according to Stalcup.

The onset of the pandemic led to classroom closures for both private and public schools in March 2020. But by the start of the 2020-21 school year, many private schools were more nimble in bringing students back to campus, due to increased health and safety measures, resources to devote to in-person learning and lack of resistance from the public unions.

Families fatigued by distance learning and who could afford the switch to private school — where median tuition is roughly $10,000 annually statewide — started migrating over.

Home schooling also became an attractive option for parents frustrated by the lack of a cohesive timeline or plan by the state Department of Education to provide a safe and adequate educational experience.

In 2020-21, 5,570 students were being home-schooled — nearly double the 2,874 the year before — while more than 3,300 students left the DOE to enter private schools, up from 1,289 the year prior, according to new data released ahead of this week’s Board of Education meeting.

“The pandemic has had a negative impact on the Department’s enrollment in recent years,” the DOE document states.

This year, all 257 DOE campuses have fully reopened, and parental fears over Covid are diminishing due to the expanded availability of vaccines for children aged 5 to 11. But enrollment and opt-out figures provided by the DOE suggest the shift from public schools to other options continues.

Families who might never have considered private school as an option are not looking back.

“There was so much outside space the DOE could have utilized, I really felt they failed the students on that one,” Stalcup said. “I feel (DOE) could have done a better job and should not have committed to just distance learning.”

In the current school year, the DOE received 3,910 requests to opt out of the public school system compared with 5,877 in the previous year. That reflects a drop, but the figure is still higher than the 3,244 opt-out requests in the 2019-20 school year, 3,003 in the 2018-19 school year and 2,774 in 2017-18.

Total public school enrollment this year is 171,000, including 159,500 kids in DOE schools and another 12,000 in charter schools, a nearly 2% decrease from the year before. Student enrollment in 2020-21 was 174,704 and 179,331 in 2019-20.

Meanwhile private school enrollment as of Oct. 1 was 33,540, compared with 31,987 in 2020-21 and 33,238 in 2019-20, according to figures provided by Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

‘Still Rebuilding’

Alice Brayce moved her two daughters from Heeia Elementary in Kaneohe to Saint Mark at the start of the 2020-21 school year. She did not have any particular concerns about her kids’ academic progress but wanted them to be able to attend school in-person.

“Our original plan was to move them to a private school in middle school,” Brayce said. But she was impressed by the private school’s plans for bringing kids back to class and their Covid-19 safety protocols.

Her daughters are in fourth and seventh grade and she said they are “thriving” at the new school.

DOE diagnostic test data from the first quarter of the current school year reflects the hardships posed by the pandemic on student progress.

As of the end of the first quarter, just about a third of students were at grade level in reading and language arts while about a quarter were at grade level for math. Among student subgroups, those figures plummet: less than 10% of English learners or kids with special needs, for instance, were at grade level in math.

In a Nov. 18 Board of Education meeting, Bob Davis, complex area superintendent of Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua area, said the challenges continue.

“We’re still rebuilding because we’re not done from the pandemic,” he told the board. “We cannot ignore the fact we are still struggling from circumstance surrounding it.”

Meanwhile, DOE officials have put together a general blueprint of how they plan to use $412 million in federal Covid relief funds under the American Rescue Plan, which must be obligated by September 2024.

In a presentation that will be shown to the board on Thursday but posted in advance, DOE officials, in broad strokes, listed aspirational changes like creating alternative outdoor learning spaces, offering extended learning like expanded afterschool programs and summer school.

But the DOE is not looking to abandon virtual schooling altogether. In fact, there was a strong contingent of parents calling for more distance learning options at the start of the school year over fears of the aggressively spreading delta variant.

The department’s blueprint said it wants to implement a flexible virtual school, building off the interest this past year to build an online distance program for Hawaiian language immersion students.

Virtual learning, the DOE blueprint said, “will increase the opportunity to learn challenging content and courses, especially for students in remote and/or rural areas where offerings may be limited at their home school.”

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