The Hawaii Board of Education on Thursday rejected a proposal by the state education department to establish a statewide virtual school for students in grades K-12, citing a lack of specificity in how the plan would be implemented.

The DOE requires the board’s approval before it can move forward with the proposal.

The plan called for spending $5.4 million in the 2022-23 school year to establish a virtual school that would serve roughly 774 students across the state. The school would be an expansion of an existing statewide distance learning program that was quickly assembled at the start of the 2021-22 academic year and currently enrolls 500 students.

Calls from students and parents for online learning rose sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven largely by health and safety concerns. Other families said their kids did better in an online learning environment.

Kea'au High School student uses Kahoot on their laptop computer during a quiz.
The DOE emphasized a return to full in-person instruction at the start of the school year but many schools still incorporate online programs in their classroom lesson plans. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

While there are two charter schools in the state that had offered blended online and in-person instruction before the pandemic began, Hawaii is among more than a dozen states that had not established a full virtual school for all students as of the 2019-20 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Since the pandemic, the number of school districts in the U.S. offering virtual schools multiplied nine-fold, according to national research firm RAND Corporation.

While the board acknowledged the need for a permanent virtual program, it said the DOE plan wasn’t fully fleshed out, including lacking a projection for how many students the school could serve at full capacity, or an explanation of how it would expand existing online learning offerings.

The DOE’s estimate of 774 students is based on a calculation of three students per each of the department’s 257 schools.

Board member Bruce Voss called the DOE’s plan “very, very conceptual.”

“It seems to me … we are just kicking some ideas around,” he said. “It … will take an enormous amount of resources by the department in planning and thinking (this through).”

Goal is to ‘Reduce Opportunity Gap’

The DOE was adamant about resuming in-person instruction for all students at the start of the school year in August, citing the academic and emotional toll distance learning had on many students since the pandemic hit the islands in March 2020.

But in a memo promoting its idea for an all-virtual school, DOE said there was a “need to provide an array of educational opportunities to maximize learning for all students.”

The memo states that a virtual school would “reduce the opportunity gap that currently exists as a result of the location and size of schools and increase equity in access to content that may not otherwise be available to them.”

In late July, just days before the start of the new school year, the DOE unveiled a statewide distance learning program at the Board of Education’s urging to address families’ Covid safety concerns.

Many families chose to take their children out of DOE schools and home-school them during the pandemic, driving an overall decrease in statewide enrollment over the last two school years.

Initial demand for a spot in the distance learning program in August was high as the delta variant drove a fresh surge in cases in Hawaii. The DOE faced a shortage of teachers to staff the distance learning positions. Part of the difficulty was a requirement that newly hired teachers from the mainland relocate to Hawaii before they could start teaching.

There are now 500 K-12 students enrolled in the program, taught by 27 instructors. A separate online Hawaiian language immersion program serves 88 students.

Although a virtual program currently exists, the DOE’s memo outlining its vision for an online school lacks data to support its $5.4 million funding request. The DOE wants to increase the capacity of the K-12 program to 774 seats and the capacity of the Hawaiian language program to 140 seats for grades K-6 and to 60 seats for grades 7-12.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said in an email the figure was based on “costs for staffing, supplies, IT infrastructure and facilities (renovations/electrical upgrades) for the virtual learning center.”

The two Hawaii charter schools that were already offering some online learning are Myron B. Thompson Academy, which has a campus on Oahu, and Hawaii Technology Academy, which has campuses on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island. Students can enroll from anywhere in the state but are encouraged to be independent workers.

The DOE also offers a program called “e-school” which includes Advance Placement courses for high schoolers who want to take courses outside their home school area or to get a leg up on accumulating college credit.

Some complex areas within Hawaii — a geographic district comprised of a high school and its feeder elementary and intermediate schools — also independently established online-only programs this year.

One is Pineapple Academy, housed out of the central Oahu complex area of Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua.

Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami commended efforts like Pineapple Academy and its tailored approach to the needs of students in that region, but said not every complex area has the resources to establish a quality online program.

“What we’re trying to do is take this idea of a virtual school and explore different ways in putting together a learning plan, or set of experiences … that then is used to give credit for a high school diploma, even (workplace) industry certification,” she said.

The DOE has identified possible office space in four unused classrooms at Keolu Elementary in Windward Oahu for the 79 positions it said would be needed to operate the administrative side of the virtual school.

There are three bills currently moving through the state Legislature that relate to the establishment of a virtual school.

Senate Bill 3094 and companion House Bill 2126 seek an emergency appropriation of $2.5 million in general funds for the next fiscal year, starting July 1, to operate this virtual school and $2.7 million in general obligation bonds for renovations and electrical upgrades and housing of administrative staff.

A third bill, Senate Bill 2184, proposes to create a new “digital learning center” within the DOE that would help administer digital learning options across the state through an unspecified appropriation.

Despite the board’s support for an alternative to in-person instruction, some members said they did not want this to be a rush job, citing the need to train teachers for these roles and put in place an online curriculum.

“I think we have to have this as part of the menu of options for students, but I just want to make sure we are going to get this right,” said chairwoman Catherine Payne. She also asked how the virtual school would complement or coordinate the menu of existing virtual options, like Pineapple Academy.

Some community advocates urged the DOE to be more flexible and offer virtual school for all kids in extenuating circumstances, as some mainland schools do during inclement weather known as “snow days.”

“We should leverage the virtual school to ensure that no student has to miss instruction for an extended period of time due to life or community circumstances,” HawaiiKidsCAN Executive Director David Miyashiro said in written testimony.

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