HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Public schools on Oahu will start the fall term Aug. 17 completely online and will continue with a remote instruction model for at least four weeks.
Gov. David Ige made the announcement Friday, pointing to a surge of COVID-19 infections on Oahu.
The decision comes less than three weeks after Ige said the reopening of public schools in Hawaii was safe and necessary, and four days after schools were originally set to resume in-person instruction.
On Friday, Oahu saw two additional COVID-19 fatalities and a record high of new infections.
“This continues the disturbing trend of triple-digit increases over the last week,” Ige said, at a news conference. “This surge in cases on Oahu has created concerns.”
While the school year will start online, students are being asked to come to campus in waves from Aug. 17 to 20 to meet with their teachers and train on distance learning platforms.
“What we want to do is is make sure that when we do distance learning, we’re doing it well, that we’re not fumbling through it the way we did the fourth quarter when we were forced to close immediately” state Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said.
When asked whether bringing students to campuses is counter-intuitive at a time when people are being asked to avoid gatherings, Kishimoto responded that it wasn’t because parents and students have indicated they need help with distance learning tools.
“The issue of connectivity across the state is not necessarily a DOE responsibility, but we’re faced with trying to meet this need right now as we explore statewide how do we provide equity of acess to connectivity to our families,” said Kishimoto.
Kishimoto also said the DOE has a loaner program for students, with 23-thousand new devices and five thousand mobile hotspots available.
The abrupt move to distance learning in March, when Hawaii was under a stay-at-home order, proved incredibly challenging. And subsequent surveys found many students didn’t participate.
Kishimoto said at this point students are set to move to a blended learning model on Sept. 14.
Students with special needs, meanwhile, will be allowed to attend classes in person during the period of remote instruction. And students without home internet will be given access to school computers.
Kishimoto added that at this point, there is no plan to go to remote instruction on the Neighbor Islands, where the number of new infections is far lower. She said the department still needed to confer with educators and others on the Neighbor Islands to determine next steps.
“There was an urgency on Oahu, given the number of case counts that we are seeing here,” she said. “But we will discuss whether or not the neighbor islands superintendents and leadership teams see a need to use the same four-week distance learning design to start the school year.”
Kishimoto said those discussions are set for Monday and Tuesday.
Neighbor Island mayors have called for fully online instruction at public schools, saying there are still too many risks to bringing students and teachers together on campus.
When asked about those concerns, the governor said the Neighbor Island situation is different.
“When we look at the prevalence of the virus in different counties, there definitely are different rates,” Ige said, noting that Kauai has not seen a new case in weeks.
“We believed that the solution needed to be catered to each county.”
The move to remote instruction on Oahu comes hours after the Hawaii State Teachers Association called on the state to switch to a distance learning model through early October.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the union’s board voted unanimously for distance learning “continuing until the end of the first quarter, or until such time that public schools are safe for students, teachers and staff together on campuses.”
Up until Friday, schools were planning to reopen their campuses on Aug. 17, welcoming students back to class with a blend of in-person and remote instruction.
School officials have said students would be kept in so-called “bubbles,” in which small groups of students would be kept with the same teacher throughout the day.
But educators have pushed back at the idea that bubbles are possible on crowded campuses.
“To think that our young children are going to remain in a bubble is a fantasy that is easily popped,” said HSTA Vice President Osa Tui.
The state Board of Education voted last week to delay the start of school for students from Aug. 4 to Aug. 17 to allow teachers more time to be trained for online instruction.
Their vote also allowed for a start of the school year fully online.
While recognizing teachers’ concerns, BOE members and the governor have also worried aloud about how parents will be able to juggle at-home instruction for their children and their responsibilities at work ― while offering few options for those parents who can’t stay home with younger kids.
“Employers need to be flexible with dealing with employees,” Ige said.
Meanwhile, several private schools have also announced that the fall term will resume online.
Mid-Pacific Institute said virtual learning will continue through Sept. 12. Iolani and Punahou schools informed parents Friday that all students will do online learning until at least Sept. 14.
And Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama is distance learning until Aug. 31.
The governor said the state is “not making any specific recommendations to private schools.”