At Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School, principal Wade Araki said his classrooms are finally starting to look like they used to before the pandemic. Desks are grouped together to promote collaborative learning instead of keeping students at least six feet apart, and more than 370 children returned to campus this fall.

For the first time in over two years, public schools in Hawaii resumed classes in early August with eased Covid-19 restrictions and no mask mandates or quarantine rules as coronavirus concerns ebb.

“While we’re still very mindful of healthy habits, schools are able to focus even more on our primary mission of education,” Superintendent Keith Hayashi said Thursday at a Board of Education meeting.

But the new year still falls short of normalcy. Early childhood educators and advocates remain worried that the state’s youngest learners have fallen behind in their development. Grade school students still struggle to adjust to classroom learning after months of online instruction in key formative years. And the learning loss is hard to reverse.

Ilima Intermediate School
Ilima Intermediate is one of several schools implementing social emotional learning and other strategies to support students in the 2022-23 school year. Courtesy: Sarah Milianta-Laffin

In response, schools across the state have turned to a range of new programs and initiatives to promote students’ academic learning and social emotional development.

Students continue to grapple with the disruption and stress the pandemic has inflicted on their lives, said Andrea Alexander, the family school and community liaison for the Hawaii Statewide Family Engagement Center, which aims to increase family and community involvement in schools.

She added that the public health crisis has made it especially important for educators to adopt a whole child approach, which factors in how students’ lives outside of school affect their performance in the classroom.

“When a student is in the classroom … that student is also representing a family and a community,” Alexander said.

That approach has manifested differently in each school.

Group Sessions

Students and teachers at Ilima Intermediate in West Oahu take at least 30 minutes each day to meet in small advisory groups, reflecting on their emotions and sharing their personal challenges, said seventh and eighth grade STEM lab teacher Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin.

“The way we also treat it is like a school family, where this is where we talk about the hard stuff that’s been going on,” Milianta-Laffin said.

The school initiated advisory groups before the pandemic, Milianta-Laffin said. However, this year marks the first time that teachers incorporated social emotional learning into the sessions, helping students learn to decipher social cues and facial expressions – a skill that has been missing after so much time isolated at home and wearing masks, she added.

As of late July, the state Department of Education had allocated almost $40 million of federal Covid relief funds to promote social emotional learning in schools. The money has gone toward providing counselors and social workers to support summer school students and offering trauma-informed care services for Windward schools on Oahu, among other initiatives.

“We did see a decrease in our children’s social emotional development and in children receiving services.” — Stacy Kong

On Hawaii island, elementary school students gather at 8 a.m. to complete a morning oli, or chant, at Kau High and Pahala Elementary School. The school’s decision to complete the oli on a daily basis since returning to in-person learning has helped students prioritize their mental health and come together as a community, school counselor Meghan Harris said.

Schools also need to bring students academically up to speed. Most campuses opened for in-person learning last year but maintained strict Covid protocols that were only lifted for the start of the new school year.

Building on the DOE’s multitiered system of support, a framework encouraging schools to track and promote student achievement, Ilima Intermediate has started “MTSS Fridays.” Once a week, students meet in groups based on their academic needs and receive tutoring in challenging subject areas, Milianta-Laffin said. Kids can also use the time to catch up on assignments.

“We were just racking our brains as teachers to be like, ‘How are we supporting these kids?’” Milianta-Laffin said. “It’s not okay to give less work, we can’t lower the rigor and expectation, but how do we transition them in a way where they can be successful?”

Statewide Concerns

The state has grappled with the same questions on a broader scale. According to DOE spokeswoman Krislyn Yano, the department has significantly expanded its summer programs over the past two years, specifically targeting students who did not meet grade level standards in math and English, or who were kept at home during their younger years.

New legislation also tries to address student needs by strengthening families. Act 129, signed into law in June, establishes a five-year pilot program to develop more family resource centers under the Department of Human Services. The centers, which can be on school campuses or outside in the community, provide a range of services for families, from counseling to child care.

Family Resource Center Act 129
Family resource centers, which will be expanded under Act 129, emerged in Hawaii schools to meet increased challenges families faced during the pandemic. Courtesy: Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O’Dell serves as network coordinator at the Hawaii Ohana Support Network, which supports family resource centers statewide. She said the first school-based family resource centers emerged as a response to families’ need for basic supplies and resources after the pandemic began in March 2020. The state now has four of them.

Kerrie Urosevich of Early Childhood Action Strategy said researchers have yet to determine the long-term effects of the pandemic on the development of young children. But, she added, the increased isolation and stress of the past two and a half years may be tied to the rise in social emotional delays observed in them.

Local providers also have seen a decline in the number of students receiving early learning and intervention services, which can further impact children’s social skills, self-regulation and academic readiness, O’Dell said.

Megan McCorriston, chief executive officer of Seagull Schools, said concerns about Covid-19 prevented many parents from sending their children to preschool even though the preschool was able to reopen for in-person instruction in May 2020 since it was deemed an essential service.

While more students returned to Seagull Schools this year, others remained absent because their families couldn’t afford the tuition, she added.

The Executive Office on Early Learning, which oversees public prekindergarten programs for 4 year olds statewide, also saw a decline in enrollment since the start of the pandemic. In the 2020-21 school year, EOEL served 302 children – 160 fewer than the previous year. Enrollment rose to 344 children last year but still remained below pre-pandemic levels.

Seagull Schools Preschool Early Childhood Education
Experts have raised concerns that the lack of early childhood education during the pandemic may negatively affect social and emotional development. Seagull Schools

Early Intervention

McCorriston said the pandemic has affected each student differently and emphasized that young children have exhibited impressive resilience in the face of change. The state also has doubled down on its efforts to promote child development and identify developmental delays as early as possible.

During the 2022 legislative session, the Department of Health’s Early Intervention Section received $3.6 million in additional funding. EIS, which serves children with special needs up to 3 years old, has seen a rise in the number of referrals for evaluations since July 2019, supervisor Stacy Kong said.

“We did see a decrease in our children’s social emotional development and in children receiving services,” Kong said. “We know that the pandemic is impacting children because it’s impacting families on all different levels.”

The $3.6 million will go toward addressing the staffing needs of local agencies that provide EIS services, Kong said. She added that the funding will allow for the greater recruitment and retention of occupational and physical therapists, social workers, care coordinators and other staffers.

Family resource centers also have done their part in promoting early childhood education, especially now that their young clients are back in person, O’Dell said.

Suzy Mitchell, who runs Kailua Elementary’s family resource center, said the center plans to start its own parent participation preschool next month, which will offer classes for children and their caregivers twice a week.

“I think that we’re all in recovery mode … I don’t run into anyone that says that they feel like everything is great, perfect and back to normal,” Mitchell said. “But people are moving forward the best they can.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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