Hawai‘i is heading back to school in two weeks, and the classrooms are going to look, feel, and operate differently than they ever have before.
“Going to school will be a change for all of us,” Governor David Ige said Monday. “It’s not going to be the same, but reopening schools is an important part of moving our community forward.”
Leaders of the Hawai‘i Department of Education (HIDOE) and the state Board of Education (BOE) said it’s educationally crucial that students find their way to a classroom at least parttime to kick off the fall semester after spending the last 46 days of the spring semester distance learning from home.
“If we have to go into distance learning again, it’s going to be really important for teachers and students to know each other,” said BOE Chairperson Catherine Payne. “We are going to lose a lot more children to deficient educational services (if they don’t develop relationships quickly).”
Despite concerns over the spread of coronavirus, a HIDOE survey of parents showed overwhelming community support for the sentiment.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said seven out of ten parents believed their children’s education was negatively impacted by distance learning, based on HIDOE-collected data. From the parents’ perspective, the largest obstacle was navigating their work schedules. For students and teachers, the primary problem was cultivating a distraction-free learning environment.
Based on HIDOE’s data, 84% of parents asked said they preferred in-person learning or a blended paradigm where students attend school on multiple days every week to keep the campus population down and decrease the risk of COVID-19 spread. Hawai‘i is one of the nation’s leaders in coronavirus health metrics and as long as mass tourism remains at bay due to the mandatory out-of-state travel quarantine, Payne believes schools will be able to create safe environments for students and faculty.
“I believe the state is safe for children, in the month of August particularly,” she said.
Gov. Ige’s plan to implement a pre-travel testing option allowing travelers to earn quarantine exemptions via a certified negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of travel was pushed back from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1.
If current plans hold, health conditions at public schools could quickly become more precarious when September hits, as the coronavirus has surged in the vast majority of mainland states since early July.
The pre-travel testing plan was pushed back in large part because the state prioritized getting students back in their classrooms, Ige said.
When asked if she believed school environments would remain safe when travelers begin migrating back to the islands in droves, Payne responded, “I absolutely hope that’s the case, but I think there are variables we’re not in control of.”
“We have to be ready to adjust with new information,” she continued. “What I am sure of, during August … that’s going to be a really critical time for setting up our students and our teachers for success.”
Kishimoto referenced an unspecified amount of extra federal and state funding HIDOE is expecting from the governor, which she said will provide several services to help accommodate learning this fall.
The state will roughly double the number of registered nurses it has on staff, adding 15 to provide a connection to the Department of Health (DOH), which developed safety protocols for the DOE’s fall semester, as well as training for principles, staff, and health aids.
HIDOE has also procured 23,000 devices for high-need students and the students of parents who wish to conduct their educations via distance learning throughout the year, which is an option each family will have.
An ‘ohana health desk will also be implemented on Aug. 4, the day classes resume, which will help schools provide distribution of learning devices along with training for distance learning. A technical support line will also be available for anyone experiencing IT issues.
The procurements will complement a standard set of safety practices, including 3 to 6 feet of social distancing inside facilities and mandatory face coverings on all busses and for older students who travel from classroom to classroom throughout the day. The first two weeks of school will be half-days, allowing for intensive faculty training and a period of adjustment to the new normal for students and teachers alike.
A layered screening system involving visual checks and question protocols will also be in place. Each school will have a “health room” where children experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms, or who have elevated temperatures, will be isolated. The standard protocol will then be to contact parents to pick up their children with advice that they visit a medical professional. Schools will also reach out to the DOH to begin contact tracing.
Kishimoto said determinations would be made following a DOH investigation as to whether a classroom, school, or entire region would need to shut down for a period of time and transition solely to distance learning.
What happens outside the classroom and off-campus, however, will be just as important as what programs schools implement. Visit the DOE website to see what plans the relevant schools in your area have put in place.
“We all need to be personally responsible for what happens, and sending our children to school when they’re sick just won’t work anymore,” said Ige, adding that employers need to work with parents if and when their children become ill.
“It only will be successful if the community is behind it,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said of the DOE’s reopening plan.
Parents need to enforce and maintain safe distancing practices at home, limiting contact to ‘ohana bubbles the same way schools will try to limit contact between students to newly developed school bubbles. Diligent hand washing and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces will be important both on campus and off of it, Park said.
“If we have to close a portion of the school, we do so quickly … and have as little interruption as possible,” Park continued. ” We can not continue to shelter in place forever.”
Danielle, a single mother of a junior high student on the Big Island who asked that her last name not be used, said she has serious doubts that the DOE can keep COVID-19 out of the classroom. However, at this juncture, with the virus numbers as low as they are in Hawai‘i, she said she doesn’t see a better option.
“I am concerned about sending my son back to school,” she said. “But the end of last semester was almost impossible. I have to go to work, and he can’t stay home alone every day.”