State education officials stressed the importance of catching kids up academically and bolstering student support services amid the pandemic as they tried to make the case to lawmakers Thursday for a $270 million budget request for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The Hawaii Department of Education, which is funded mostly with state general funds and is the largest agency in terms of the number of employees, is coming into the 2022 legislative session, which starts Jan. 19, with some momentum from the executive office.

Gov. David Ige’s supplemental budget proposes restoring $100.2 million to the DOE base budget — funds that were cut last year due to revenue shortfalls — and adding $32.5 million to cover teacher salary differentials that were sustained this fiscal year by federal Covid aid.

“It is part of the governor’s financial plan on a recurring basis,” DOE budget director Brian Hallett said of the salary differentials at a budget briefing to the Senate Education and Ways and Means committees.

Department of Education, Senate, briefing, budget
DOE officials present their proposed 2023 fiscal year budget to members of the Senate Education and Ways and Means committees. Screenshot/2022

Federal Relief Funds

The DOE, which counts 22,000 full-time employees, and serves roughly 159,500 students, has a remaining balance of approximately $504 million in federal funds from the first round of aid via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act up to the latest round from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Hallett told lawmakers that the initial $43 million in CARES Act money was dedicated largely to bolstering health and safety measures in schools and supporting special education. The second round of $183 million in federal aid helped offset general fund budget cuts while ARPA funds will largely be devoted to helping accelerate learning and students’ social-emotional needs after nearly a year and a half of distance or hybrid learning.

DOE officials also said they were looking into establishing a permanent statewide distance learning program that would extend beyond core classes and include extracurricular classes, hosted in a space that could virtually serve students across all islands.

“The idea is that we really want to give access to students as much as possible as we look at the next iteration (of virtual learning). We’re keeping that mindset,” said deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami. The DOE began offering a statewide distance program at the start of the 2021-22 school year, as the delta variant surged, and about 500 to 600 families are enrolled she said.

While details are still fuzzy on this future model, interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said DOE is looking to replicate a physical space that would allow teachers to teach distance learning “to be able to support our students statewide.”

DOE schools have been hit by high student and staff absences since the second half of the school year began as the number of coronavirus cases surged with the onset of the highly contagious omicron variant. Despite the DOE’s emphasis on keeping kids in school, some have been forced to independently pivot to remote learning.

Covid Absences

One was Oahu’s Sunset Elementary, which switched to virtual learning this week after nearly half of all students were absent on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday, the school had nine out of 21 classes in either partial or full quarantine, according to principal Eliza Elkington.

“As a principal, I am a firm supporter of in-person learning,” she said. “I did everything possible I could to bring students back to in-person learning early last school year, and I will do the same now. I will continue to monitor the situation, and will keep parents informed.”

Hayashi, who frequently urges the importance of in-person learning despite the latest surge in Covid cases, repeated to lawmakers Thursday that all schools have a contingency plan “to be able to shift to distance learning in varying degrees.”

“The pandemic last year really showed us the impact of not having students in school,” he said. “We remain resolved to keep as many classrooms as open as possible.”

He also addressed a question by Sen. Donna Mercado Kim about the failure of several dozen DOE schools to report Covid case counts in a timely manner, with some lagging as far back as August or September.

As of Tuesday evening, 41 of 257 schools had not reported a single positive Covid case on their campus since before winter break. By Thursday, some of those schools had updated counts that reflect positive cases in January.

Failure To Report

Hayashi apologized for the undercount, telling lawmakers that schools “have been inundated,” especially with Covid impacts, but saying there are “no excuses for that” and the DOE is working to get the “numbers updated as soon as possible.”

“We are responsible to submit that, and I extend my sincere apologies for those numbers not being there,” he told the lawmakers. “We’ll be sure those numbers are in moving forward and that those corrections are made and it will be updated and monitored to make sure those numbers are current.”

Last year the Legislature passed Senate Bill 811, which requires the DOE to report a weekly total tally of Covid cases stemming from school campuses.

In an email, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the department is following up with individual schools and discussing “possible solutions to help streamline and alleviate some of that burden.”

“We remain fully committed to the intent of Act 4,” she said, adding the DOE launched the daily Covid dashboard in August “as an added service to families and school communities.”

But the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Osa Tui Jr., said DOE has relied on that dashboard “to further their narrative” that “schools are safe and there is little to no transmission taking place on campus.”

HSTA has criticized the DOE for not coming up with better plans for schools in light of surging Covid cases or providing better guidance to schools or preparation time to switch to remote learning.

“When some of our largest schools are not complying with the requirement to update their information, those communities are not being provided the complete picture of what’s taking place on their campuses with regards to COVID prevalence,” Tui said.

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