After a ‘lost year’ for many students, educators and advocates scramble to get them help

A year of masks and distance learning: how the pandemic changed everything for Hawaii’s schools

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Campbell High has nearly 3,100 students and before the pandemic, classrooms and hallways were crammed.

Not so these days.

When Principal John Henry Lee showed Hawaii News Now around campus in the third quarter, there were maybe 60 students there.

And that’s not all that’s different.

There is also now a huge storage of personal protective gear in what once served as a computer science classroom.

“We’ve got everything from the gowns that are needed, the microfiber cloths,” said Lee, as he pointed to the stockpile across the room. “Everything else you need over here, full body gowns, the KN95 masks, the hand sanitizer. The big drums of cleaners.”

But the effect on education goes far beyond what you can physically see on a school campus.

[This story is part of a week-long series from HNN, “The Pandemic: A Year with Coronavirus,” exploring where Hawaii is and where it’s headed a year after the pandemic started. Be sure to catch our special panel discussion on leadership in the islands during COVID-19. Click here for details.]

According to state Department of Education’s statistics, 18% of high school students were “off mark” for graduation after the second quarter.

At the same time, 21% of public elementary school students were given a “well below” mark in English Language Arts, and 15% were given the same marks for math.

And not every child has been impacted in the same way.

“The gap has dramatically widened,” said Mitch D’Olier, an ACS (Accrediting Commission for Schools) WASC commissioner. “That’s what the DOE data just showed. These kids are permanently set back.”

When schools initially closed last March and started distance learning, the big concern was technology.

The DOE and individual schools were eventually able to hand out tablets and hotspots. That helped going into this school year. But more than 4,000 students did not have internet connectivity sufficient for distance learning as recently as a few months ago for the second quarter.

And while that is a small percentage compared to the total amount of students in the state, for each of these students, the impact could be huge.

“It’s been really bad for certain groups of kids,” said D’Olier. “It’s free and reduced lunch kids. It’s kids that don’t have somebody home with them, watching how they’re doing with distance learning. It’s kids that don’t have computers. It’s kids that don’t have a hotspots.

“It’s kids that have a hotspot and a computer, but don’t have a place to study in their house. And it’s other kids who have all that stuff that disappear and people don’t know what happened.”

That’s a big concern for educators and something they take seriously.

Kaneohe Elementary School Principal Derek Minakami holds weekly meetings with counselors and teachers and is constantly game planning to reach students who are struggling.

“Sometimes it’s creating separate sessions with tutors,” said Minakami.

“Other times it is going up to their house and asking, what can we do to support you, what can we do to convince you to come back to school because learning at home has been very difficult in terms of keeping you engaged or making sure that you’re in class all the time.”

Adding to the frustration, decisions were left to complex area superintendents and school principals.

Everyone handled things differently, meaning students in different areas had different experiences — some had more in-person learning than others.

And a number of private schools offered full-time, in-person learning from the beginning of the year.

“It’s been rough,” said Candice Ichiki, a parent with two kids in public school.

“It’s unnatural to have the kids at home all the time. We’re used to sending them to school. They’re supposed to go to school where there’s trained professionals there to teach them. I’m not a trained professional. I don’t know the curriculum. I don’t know the grade level standards. But it’s been tough trying to keep them going, making sure that they’re on track and they’re keeping up with their peers.”

David Miyashiro is the founder of Hawaii Kids Can. He says parents aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

“What we’re going to have is a lost year in a lot of ways for students,” said Miyashiro.

“Students are going to finish the year way behind from where they would have. Families are going to be frustrated by the experience they had trying to make ends meet while their kid’s learning at home. And I think teachers feel like they could have had better support through this whole experience.”

So the big question is how to get our keiki and teens caught up.

Miyashiro says utilizing nonprofits and volunteers could play a big role, even if it’s just helping those in similar situations find one another.

For instance, he says, “if we know that there might be five families who all need help with math tutoring for middle school, how do those families connect with each other and maybe share money for a tutor or maybe have a volunteer come and help them out. I think there are a lot of nonprofits in the community who are ready and willing to step in to help close some of those gaps.”

Federal funding will will play the biggest part. But in the meantime, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation is lending a hand.

Alex Harris says the foundation is focusing on areas that can have the biggest impact.

“There are things that we know work,” said Harris. “For example, summer time programming, summer school, strategic tutoring programs. And these are all efforts that our foundation is supporting.”

He adds, “We’re paying college students to tutor kids in Kalihi, Kaneohe and Kauai. We’re paying high school counselors to work over the summer to help place recent graduates in college or in jobs. We’re launching a new scholarship program at Windward Community College to make it easier to go to college.”

And a joint community response does work. Take Kauai for instance.

During the summer, schools across the island shared information, showing 8 to 10% of students had connectivity issues.

So educators, lawmakers and organizations helped raise funds, pulling in about $465,000. That money was used to buy devices, Wi-Fi hotspots and internet access for students.

A portion of that was also used to help train teachers to conduct distance learning.

But Koloa Elementary School principal Leila Maeda-Kobayashi said that wasn’t the end of it.

She said, “I recently had a developer down the road and he called through an organization here in Koloa. He said, what do you need? I said we need school supplies. We need this. And lo and behold, they come and they drop off a $200 gift card for every faculty member on my staff.”

The bottom line is the schools and students need help. And it’s going to take a lot of innovative work from schools, students and everyone.

But as we move forward, educators say they will and have learned a few lessons along the way.

Principal Lee offered this example from Campbell High.

“Some students thrived in the distance learning. Some of our teachers, we talk about the educational bag of tricks, some of our teachers are very good at it. So in terms of how we change what we do, our schools shouldn’t be the same next year just ‘cause the pandemic kind of goes away or subsides. Figuring out how to reach even more people through these means.”

So yes, distance learning may have some kind of permanent role. But the goal is still to get students back on campus socializing, learning and collaborating.

Right now, there are a lot of people working hard to get them there, doing whatever it takes to get public education back on track.

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