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Schools Back in Session, Amid Last Minute Changes

Infographic by Kayla Guerrero

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Monday brought a return to school for some campuses on Molokai under various blended learning models, while two schools, Kaunakakai Elementary and Molokai High, announced over the weekend they will implement 100 percent virtual learning for the first several weeks.

Two weeks ago, the Dept. of Education announced Oahu schools would start the year with four weeks of distance learning, due to continued a rise in COVID-19 cases. Last week, a second announcement extended distance learning to all schools in the state, except those on Molokai and Hana.

“The decision to move ahead with Molokai’s reopening plans was community-driven,” said Nanea Kalani, a spokesperson for the DOE, explaining why Molokai schools were among the only in the state to return to campus on Aug. 17. “The Department’s complex area superintendents and school principals were empowered to customize school models that best meet the needs of their families, while ensuring health and safety protocols are enforced.”

“Molokai Middle School’s theme ‘Strong Schools, Strong Communities’ resonates with the community’s strengths of working collectively to ensure we do what’s best for our island’s keiki and ‘ohana under these circumstances,” said Middle School Principal Kainoa Pali in a statement given to the DOE. “The opportunity to have a voice at the school level surely empowers the communities to take collective kuleana. That strength has allowed Molokai schools to move forward with their plans.”

On Friday, Molokai High School Principal Katina Soares offered a similar statement.

“We really worked cohesively as an island educational community, including our elementary feeder charter school,” Soares told the DOE. “An active case on our island could be detrimental and we have all prepared contingency plans to go to 100 percent distance should it become necessary. For Molokai High, families were offered a choice in virtual or in-person/face-to-face blended learning in rotation. The majority of students and families have chosen in-person learning.”

But things soon changed. On Friday evening, MHS’s Facebook page announced all of its students would begin the year with 100 percent distance learning.

“First I would like to express my heartfelt apology that we weren’t able to notify you earlier of our 100 percent Distance (Virtual) Learning beginning next week,” wrote Soares in a letter to families on Sunday. “There were some unforeseen circumstances that made it difficult to safely continue with bringing all students back on campus on Monday, Aug. 17.”

One of the reasons for the change is continuing construction on campus, she said.

“Full campus capacity was unavailable due to delays of construction completion in three buildings. Approximately eight classrooms are currently impacted in addition to several with no phone or internet access,” wrote Soares. “Off-island, essential construction workers continue to work on campus to repair two large buildings. With the continued rise in COVID-19 cases off-island, the potential interaction with the off-island workers was of increased concern with the added presence of students [this] week.”

Additionally, several teachers and custodial staff were on unexpected leave, leaving a gap in staff on opening day and not enough time to train substitutes on new safety protocols, she said.

Kaunakakai Elementary School also announced a last minute switch to distance learning.

“The health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and families is always our top priority,” read a statement on the school’s website over the weekend. “Our teachers and staff have been working very hard to prepare for our students, although we need to take this time to ensure the cleaning and sanitizing of our school is done to a level that ensures everyone’s safety.”

Both schools announced full virtual learning will continue until Sept. 8. Soares said MHS will then “reevaluate for the potential return to a face-to-face, blended model.”

“For Kaunakakai Elementary, we received mostly positive feedback from our community, faculty and staff on the implementation of our school model,” said Principal Daniel Espaniola on Friday, prior to the distance learning announcement. “We know that our students benefit the most from being in school, even if it is only for part of the week.”

Meanwhile, the teachers’ union, Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA), has reiterated repeated concerns about reopening of schools in recent weeks.

Tes Kaulia, HSTA Molokai chapter president and teacher at Maunaloa School, acknowledged that there are a wide range of teacher reactions to reopening on the island.

“Teachers’ responses are varied — some are for 100 percent distance learning and some are ready to go back as planned,” said Kaulia last Friday. “There are teachers who feel safe and comfortable enough with reopening due to custodial staff [and everyone] working tirelessly at their schools.”

However, some have voiced grave concerns.

“Some of the responses teachers shared with me were that they were scared and terrified,” said Kaulia. “What really struck to me for myself, is the passion that I usually feel as an educator [isn’t there]. I can speak for other teachers in that they are not wanting to go to work. Teachers are scrambling to reconfigure their classrooms for Monday. I’m getting emotional because I feel for them.”

Kaulia represents about 130 Molokai teachers in the HSTA. She said there’s a lot of anxiety and frustration right now, and many teachers feel like they were not part of the reopening discussions, she added.

“They [DOE and school principals] had a discussion earlier this week, then boom, we saw it on the news that Molokai and Hana schools were going back,” Kaulia said last Friday.

“We have the least resources [on Molokai] to deal with an outbreak,” she continued. “There’s no control…. All of a sudden teachers are thinking about retiring or not even wanting to go to work.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the island’s schools returned to campus as planned, with various combinations of face-to-face, blended and rotational distance learning tailored to each school.

“Our decision was made collectively with input from teachers and staff as well as our families. All parties want our students back on campus,” said Maunaloa Elementary School TA Principal Alison Place. “Because we are a small school, we are able to safely provide face-to-face learning on campus every day. We are prepared to shift to distance learning if needed, and this face-to-face time will further help to prepare our students for that possibility.”

Charter conversion Kualapu’u School opened to students last week, with some families opting for virtual learning. Aka’ula School has also resumed, with safety measures in place.

Kilohana Elementary School Principal Marilyn Simms said she has been communicating with teachers and parents about reopening recommendations.

“Through weekly Google Meets and other staff meetings our ‘North Star’ remains, ‘All students, every day,’” she said, through a DOE statement. “Our parents, our students and our staff want our students back on campus. Our plans continue to be focused in that direction. Although distance learning is an option, an overwhelming majority of our parents want their students to attend school in person. Our campus is large and our enrollment is small; therefore, we are able to socially distance our students throughout the school day as well as keep them in their school ‘ohana pods.’”

Across the state, however, concerns persist. The HSTA filed legal action against the State of Hawaii last week.

“The state’s dangerous plans for in-person learning while coronavirus cases are exploding in our state, along with other violations of labor agreements, prompted the Hawaii State Teachers Association to file a prohibited practice complaint…” stated an HSTA press release.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said there appears to be a disconnect between state and DOE leadership and what’s actually happening at schools.

“In a news conference, [Gov. David] Ige claimed students will return to campus ‘by appointment only’ while in a statement, [Schools Superintendent Christina] Kishimoto made the claim that students will return to schools in a ‘coordinated manner’ to ‘receive training on distance learning platforms,’” said Rosenlee. “Kishimoto also alleged “in many cases, schools have designated one hour a day” for those purposes.”

However, educators at schools on Oahu and Maui reported to the HSTA large numbers of students returning to campus and disorganization and lack of communication about scheduling and operations.

Additionally, the DOE just released information on more than a dozen COVID-19 cases among teachers and students during the summer months, mainly on Oahu. Kishimoto said “timely notification was made to the impacted school community” but Rosenlee said the information was never made public, raising red flags about the impact of withheld details on educators’ abilities to make informed decisions about reopening.

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