Private and charter schools return to in-person classes amid pandemic with few problems

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Principal John Thatcher looks at a handmade poster reminding students to wear masks in a hallway at Connections Public Charter School on Wednesday in Hilo. The fun posters help remind the younger students about their masks.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Kate Wines talks to her class at Connections Public Charter School before taking them on a walk to Kalakaua Park in Hilo on Wednesday. This was the class’s first trip to a park this year.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Jane Saarinen, right, and Sky Bardwell-Jones work in class Wednesday at Connections Public Charter School in Hilo. All students and teachers are required to wear masks at all times in class.

With smaller populations and closer relationships, Hilo private and charter schools have found success with in-person classes during the first quarter of the school year.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a vast majority of Hawaii public school students have been distance learning since school began in August. Although the state Department of Education last week announced a plan that would allow some schools to begin in-person instruction late this year or early in January 2021, private schools and public charter schools have been able to reopen on their terms.

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Connections Public Charter School has been operating with a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning since beginning school Aug. 10. The school is normally host to 360 students, but has about 100 students in attendance each day.

After six weeks of classes, the school has not had anyone test positive for COVID-19.

“We have had no positive cases,” said Principal John Thatcher. “We’ve had some staff that have been tested because of the community spread, but have all come back negative.”

The governing board of Connections Public Charter School set the practice that if any staff or student tests positive, the school will go all online for three weeks. The board also decided that if positive cases reach 5% of people tested on the Big Island, the school will operate online only until cases decline.

“Luckily, we haven’t reached that point yet, but it looked a bit dicey last week,” Thatcher said.

When students and staff are in school, they must wear masks the entire day and they cannot congregate in the common areas. Staff and students also are checked for symptoms before they enter the school for the day.

“The children make sure they’re wearing masks all the time, and they are so good about it. It amazes me,” Thatcher said. “They really take it seriously.”

Students in kindergarten through second grade are able to have face-to-face learning Monday through Thursday. Third-grade to 12th-grade students use a hybrid model of virtual and face-to-face learning.

The older students were split into two groups. One group comes for two days and the other group goes to school the other two days.

Students in grades 7-12 can all come to school for face-to-face learning on Fridays because the elementary students are not in school.

“The students that have a harder time or don’t have anyone to watch them during the day are allowed to come to school every day,” Thatcher said. “We try to accommodate every student and their needs as best we can right now.”

While students have been excited to come back to class, some are having a hard time catching up after a long time away from school.

“There were so many that didn’t finish the fourth quarter of school last year, so it has been a challenge for them to get used to learning every day again,” Thatcher said. “But the majority of kids tell me that they really wanted to come back to school.”

Thatcher hopes that schools under the state Department of Education are able to resume face-to-face learning as soon as they can.

“We have an easier time because we are much smaller,” Thatcher said. “I understand the fear of reopening, but I feel bad for those kids that are missing school and need that face-to-face interaction to do well.”

St. Joseph School has been operating using a hybrid model of online and face-to-face learning as well.

Students in grades 9-12 come to school Tuesday, Thursday and every other Friday. Students in seventh and eighth grade are able to come to school every day.

“We’re trying our best to serve all our kids, and so far, it has been challenging,” said Interim Principal Susan Wehrsig. “I pray every day before coming in that the day runs smoothly and safely.”

Although students are able to come to school, their days look much different than they did prior to the pandemic.

Students are required to wear masks anytime they move in school. They eat lunch at their desks in their classrooms. They must have their temperatures checked every morning, and they cannot participate in extracurricular activities or celebrations.

“Everything has to be much more structured, but that has been hard for the kids,” Wehrsig said. “I know they really miss that physical contact with each other and with their teachers.”

After conducting a survey of the high school seniors, Wehrsig found that they were concerned with three things about online learning.

Seniors reported they miss having direct contact with their teachers, they have a hard time planning or organizing their days around online learning and there are too many distractions at home.

“They have been becoming more proactive with time, and I give everyone credit,” Wehrsig said. “They have really stepped up to the plate.”

To help give back to the students, the executive board of St. Joseph is hoping to have some kind of activity at the school for Halloween.

“Everyone has worked hard to make this work, and even the younger kids are so good with the new rules,” Wehrsig said. “They are excited to wear their masks, but they do have to be reminded of social distancing sometimes.”

Although everyone has been following the safety protocols, the school did experience a COVID-19 scare earlier in the semester.

“When a student may have had contact with a positive case, we decided to go fully online for two weeks,” Wehrsig said. “Luckily, everyone involved tested negative, and we were able to come back to our hybrid model smoothly.”

There are 84 students enrolled in grades 7-12 at St. Joseph, and many of them have been classmates since elementary school. While it has been hard to get used to physically staying apart, the tight-knit group is excited to see each other — even from a distance.

“I think this model does work for us because we are a smaller school,” Wehrsig said. “This is a close group of students that want to be here, so they are good about staying safe.”

Haili Christian School has had students in class since beginning its summer program June 8.

“We have allowed parents to make the decision between in-person and distanced learning during the first quarter,” said Principal Kim McCarty “They have that option, so they can make the best decision for their individual family.”

Haili Christian is home to 160 students from preschool to eighth grade, which is a significant decrease from last year. Classroom sizes had to decrease to accommodate social distancing, which made it difficult to offer normal enrollment.

While there were many changes to procedures, collaboration between administration, teachers and parents prior to students coming back helped ease the transition to in-person instruction.

“Our teachers should be commended for all they’ve done,” McCarty said. “They are energetic, hardworking and deliberate in making sure there is good communication with parents.”

Every morning, students and teachers check their temperatures and are asked about the health of the household. If someone in their immediate household is showing symptoms, then students can be asked to change to distance learning.

After months of in-person learning, Haili Christian has not had any problems with staff and students.

“Everyone is doing well with this, and the students transitioned easily,” McCarty said. “It takes active monitoring to make sure the students are socially distanced, but good relationships and communication has been helping them make sure they’re abiding by the new protocol.”

Less than 10% of students have opted for distance learning instead of face-to-face instruction. Through trial and error, teachers have become more effective communicators, and students have been doing well with their studies.

“Our teachers are deliberate in checking in with students and parents,” McCarty said. “That’s the beauty of a smaller school. We have more control and can check up on one another easily.

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“Being social with a community of learners makes learning a bit easier. They want to be together and learn together, and that has been one of the high points in returning.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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