Why more kids aren’t back at school; Despite low COVID case counts, administrators say numerous hurdles remain

  • Ellen Zanetos uses a ring light to brighten her face over Zoom during distance learning at Hilo High School on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

  • Ellen Zanetos talks to students while looking at their artwork during distance learning at Hilo High School on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Despite relatively low COVID-19 infection rates on the Big Island, some schools have opted to continue with distance learning this quarter, while others are working to bring students back to campus.

The decision by schools to maintain distance learning or transition to a blended learning model is, by all accounts, a complicated one that requires an evaluation not only of the number of coronavirus cases in the community but a broad range of other factors as well.

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“Schools, in collaboration with complex area leaders, developed and adjusted their third-quarter plans, taking into consideration the (state Department of Health) metrics that account for case activity by island, as well as other factors such as campus facilities and whether it allows for proper social distancing, proper staffing for blended learning or student transportation logistics,” said state Department of Education spokeswoman Krislyn Yano.

Based on Big Island coronavirus case counts, as of Jan. 11 the DOH recommended in-person learning for Big Island elementary students and blended learning — where one group of students is on campus receiving in-person instruction while the other participates in distance learning — for secondary students.

Yano said most schools already welcomed back “vulnerable learners” or select groups for in-person learning. A number of schools also have learning labs in place where students can schedule a time to come to campus for in-person support.

But schools also are carefully transitioning to different stages in their reopening plans to avoid switching between different learning models, she explained.

As important as the case count metrics are, Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area Superintendent Chad Keone Farias said the ability to implement and enforce mitigation strategies such as contact tracing, social distancing, hand-washing, hygiene and mask-wearing are equally — if not more — important.

“The hard part is staff confidence that kids will follow those guidelines, and convincing them that can be done is really hard,” he said.

According to Farias, most complaints received by his office recently have been about having students on campus. Many of those have come from teachers and staff.

“When the schools have enough energy and time to survey parents, the majority of parents want to keep kids on distance learning,” Farias said.

Teachers, though, are finding it difficult to teach both in-person and by distance learning, all while providing social-emotional support to students, he said.

Even if students can return to campus, class capacity is limited because of social distancing requirements.

“In the meantime, that teacher teaching five kids (in person) is still worrying about 25 kids at home, has the kuleana … of educating the 25 at home,” Farias said.

That’s part of what’s driving the decision about whether to switch learning models, he said.

“All schools would bring back kids if they could,” said Farias. “Because they can only do it to a limited extent, they’re choosing the modality where they’re seeing the greatest return on investment.”

Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area Superintendent Esther Kanehailua said all schools in that complex area continue to have students use distance learning as the primary model.

Kanehailua said distance learning for students in grades 6-12 is a trade-off between synchronous daily instruction — meaning learners and educators are in the same place at the same time, following a rotation schedule — and a model where students might attend school in person once a week or every other week while working independently on the other days.

“Students would lose out on instructional time with their teachers” under blended learning models, she said.

And unlike elementary schools, cohorting with secondary students is difficult because of a period-by-period rotation, she continued.

Kanehailua said, too, that another factor in deciding whether or not to use a distance learning model is parents’ concerns for their families.

“Many have multi-generational homes or have someone in the home with underlying health issues, so they don’t want to send their child in person, worrying they could infect a grandparent or family member in the home,” she said. “I have heard both ends of the spectrum, where some parents want students in school, while others question why we are returning students so quickly.”

According to Kanehailua, as more students return to campus, schools are prioritizing the neediest or struggling learners.

“These are students considered to be disproportionately impacted by distance learning,” she said. They are identified by schools and prioritized to minimize learning loss.

“The priority now is the health, safety and well-being of our students,” Kanehailua said. “This is why individual school decision-making is so important while using guidance from the CDC and DOH. They are the health experts, and we are the education experts. One-size-fits-all does not work amid a pandemic when you consider facilities and unique student needs.

“More over, we do not want to jump in and out of school models, as that can be more detrimental and disruptive to students.”

Dennis O’Brien, principal at E.B. de Silva Elementary in Hilo, said his school brought back special education students at the beginning of the second quarter and kindergarten students on Nov. 30.

But O’Brien said the third and fourth quarters of the school year will serve as a transition back to more normal operations, and more students will return to the school in a blended learning model in the coming weeks.

First-grade students will return Jan. 25, followed by second-graders on Feb. 8.

“Then we’ll take probably a week or two to make sure protocols are in place,” he said, before bringing back third- and fourth-grade students, followed lastly by those in grades 5-6.

“We should have all grades in-house by the end of the third quarter,” O’Brien said. “At least that’s the plan. If the (COVID-19) numbers stay low, we can do it.”

O’Brien said distance learning can’t replicate what takes place in a classroom.

“We also know socially, emotionally, psychologically, (it is) better for the children to have that peace of mind that they’re in school, that things are returning to, quote unquote, normal,” he said about the decision to transition to blended learning. “We took into consideration a wide range of factors, all of it centers on the child.”

O’Brien said, too, that availability of vaccines for teachers also should “clear up any residual hesitancy teachers had” about returning to face-to-face instruction.

Once students return for blended in-person learning, O’Brien said the next transition would be to have keiki back every day, and he hopes to start the next school year with a return to more normal schooling.

“Our teachers are more than willing to have the students come back,” he said. “That hasn’t been a problem. It’s making sure it’s bringing them back safely.”

The 6-foot social distancing requirement is one reason why the school is moving to an A-B schedule blended model, O’Brien said. As it is, there’s no way to maintain that distance with more students in a classroom, and space already was at a premium. According to O’Brien, the school was built for 370 students and it has about 460.

Although some students do well with distance learning, the principal said most tend to struggle, especially older students used to the way school was before the pandemic.

While he’s aware some parents “want us to speed it up,” O’Brien said school leaders “are moving forward as quickly as we can because we know they’re correct.”

Elsewhere in East Hawaii, learning models can vary even within the same community.

Keaau High School, for example, was set to begin the third quarter in the blended model, according to a letter posted on its website.

“We are asking that you all look at making sure our students come with a mask and practice social distancing as they have not seen each other since last March,” wrote Principal Dean Cevallos in the letter. “We really want to keep the school open, and social distancing and wearing a mask will be the only way that will happen. … We are excited to have everyone back.”

Meanwhile, Keaau Middle School announced on its website that distance learning would continue for the third quarter.

“Keaau Elementary is continuing in our discussion and planning in regards to returning students to campus,” said Principal Stacey Bello in a Jan. 9 letter to parents and guardians posted on the school’s website.

Bello said in the letter that students will remain on their current learning method until transition plans can be solidified.

“Absolutely,” Farias said when asked if he thinks more keiki should return school. “I believe more kids should be in school, and we are working our tails off to increase that.”

Farias said on a typical day, about 20% of the complex area’s approximate 4,300 students are on campus.

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According to Kanehailua, there are up to 619 students on Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area campuses on any given day.

About 6,500 students in the complex area are engaged in distance learning in some form, she said, and 1,344 students opted to do distance learning for the remainder of the school year.