Distance learning may be an option if schools close due to unexpected emergencies

As more residents get vaccinated and restrictions ease on public gatherings and other precautions, the Hawaii State Department of Education says all Hawaii public schools will fully reopen for in-person learning next school year.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto announced the decision in a memo to principals last week. A similar message was sent to all staff Monday afternoon.

The superintendent wrote, “Our schools play a critical role in providing students a safe learning space for social connections and cognitive and personal development. Therefore, for the school year 2021-2022 scheduled to begin on August 3, 2021, the expectation is that all HIDOE schools will be fully open for daily, in-person learning. This also includes resuming co-curricular and extracurricular activities such as clubs, band, and athletics at all schools.”

This approach means that schools will not offer a full-distance learning model as an alternative to in-person learning, the DOE’s memo said Friday. Distance learning may be an option if schools have to close due to unexpected emergencies or other student-focused circumstances.

Kishimoto says mitigation protocols will remain in place, such as directing students and staff to stay home when sick, consistent mask-wearing, and proper hand hygiene. Department officials will continue to work with health leaders as conditions and guidance evolve.

View the full memo

On Monday afternoon, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee spoke with reporters about this new development. A transcript is available below. Please note, HSTA had no advance knowledge of this decision and no part in the decision-making process.

How are you folks feeling about kids returning to school in the fall?

Since vaccinations have been widely available, teachers have already been back in the classroom. We’ve supported bringing more students back, and I think that in the fall, we support the idea of bringing our students back fully. We just want to make sure it’s safe, and I think we still just have the concern about how many parents or students are going to feel safe to come back as well, and we hope to encourage them that our classrooms will be safe when we do want our students back in the classroom.

There’s still a population of students who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, for example, elementary school students. Are there concerns there specifically with that population that is not eligible?

Well, the question is we don’t know by August what will be available. I just saw a story today that said they may be able to vaccinate children under 12 during the summer, and those have always been students who have been the least vulnerable. And I think that they definitely need that social interaction. One of the things that passed the legislature this year is to monitor cases by school, and that if we see an outbreak, then we need to go to virtual, but if we’re not seeing those outbreaks as the community is getting vaccinated and as more students are getting vaccinated, I think that the long-term impact to the social learning of students is going to be impacted if we don’t go back soon enough.

The one thing we’re just going to be carefully watching is, I think it’s going to take a community effort to get everyone vaccinated, because the one concern we have is for those students that may not be able to get vaccinated, being surrounded by those that are choosing not to get vaccinated. And we’re just hoping that for both teachers and students to encourage them to be able to get the vaccine so that we do create some sort of herd immunity.

(The University of Hawaii) came out and said they’re going to mandate vaccines for college students. Do you think the DOE should do the same, just like TB and all these other things that the DOE already has mandated?

One of the important things during this entire pandemic, HSTA has often said we need to follow the science, and Dr. (Anthony) Fauci (chief medical adviser to the president and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director) has just said recently that he wants to encourage, but not mandate, that K–12 students get the vaccination. So as long as that’s what Dr. Fauci saying, I think that’s our position and we need to encourage it.

With the campuses fully reopening, is the six-foot distancing still going to be a thing? Outdoor learning spaces, maybe? Have you heard from the DOE about that?

The (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is still recommending three feet. We do believe that that should be what we are trying to attempt to do in our schools. Who knows? One of the things we’re looking at, this is going to happen in August. We’re in May. That may change too, and we have to accommodate that.

Obviously, this means there will be more students on campus. Do you feel like the facilities have enough resources, from PPE, face shields, and all that stuff? Do you think facilities are ready to take in more students?

There is some concern about that. The last data we have was from the DOE in March, so we don’t know how up-to-date it is, but some of the schools were suggesting that it could be short on those supplies. But again, things are so rapidly changing and we’re trying to predict what’s going to happen in three months. They’re suggesting that if you’re vaccinated, maybe you don’t need your mask anymore. So I think right now by saying to the schools that we will be fully reopen in the fall, at least that sends a clear signal to parents and students what’s going to happen. And I think from there, there’s going to have to be some flexibility dealing with what the cases are happening these couple of months and seeing if there’s any new recommendations from the CDC. So this is a broad goal that we’re going to try to achieve so most people can start planning before school, take their summer break, and that’s what we’re going to be aiming for.

Previously, you’ve always expressed concern about reopening schools, especially to in-person. Is what changed the vaccination rates among educators and students, or what changed your perspective in thinking it’s a good idea to slowly bring students back to in-person?

Well, our biggest objection was doing it unsafely and not following the CDC recommendations. HSTA said we need to have face mask use. We need to use six-foot distancing. And when those things were not followed, that’s what we have to advocate for. But as the CDC recommended three feet, as they’re suggesting that you know people, educators, could get vaccinated, then we were following that. What I’m very proud of that HSTA did during this pandemic is that people saw us as the voice of reason and the voice supporting the science. And now that the science is suggesting that it is safe, and that’s what they’re doing, then we support that as well.

You mentioned that children have low risk of transmitting COVID-19. We do know that from the science. But if they are not approved for the use of COVID-19 vaccines by summer, do you think those students who are unvaccinated should just continue learning at home even though they should be the population that does in-person learning?

One of the things that the Department of Health, the DOE, and HSTA have been closely watching is the numbers happening across the state. One of the things we’ve disagreed with the DOE and the DOH on was the cases by school, because that’s the biggest way to see if there is an outbreak. And so far, even by the complex area, it’s hard to see that that’s occurring. I would say though that if we start seeing a difference in the numbers, and the science is suggesting that it is being widely dispersed at schools, then we may have to change this position. But until that occurs, until the science says differently, we believe that it is safe.

The Queen’s Health Systems is saying they’re seeing a high interest in the age group between 12 to 15 getting their vaccines. What’s the reaction from the teachers association? Does that make them feel more comfortable in the facility?

One of the things we often see in our schools is that we have students that for whatever reason have health conditions, for example the flu, and they are the ones that can’t take the flu vaccine. So in order to make those students safe, we encourage others to get the flu vaccine. And the same thing needs to happen here. For certain teachers and students, they cannot take, for medical reasons, the vaccination. And so it’s so important for those who can do it, to do it, so that we can keep everyone safe in our classrooms and on our campuses.

There might be parents out there that still don’t feel comfortable, even though it’s been a year and a half. Are there still going to be distance learning options, or are these parents going to have to file for homeschool?

I have not seen the specific DOE proposal, but what we’ve heard is, they’re not going to be offering the distance learning option, so they’re just trying to get all students to come back. And I think that’s going to be a challenge. I think one of the things that schools are going to have to work with is their teachers and counselors is from day one seeing how many students return, and then doing the best that we can to encourage those that are not coming to come to school. And I think that the availability for vaccinations, especially for those under 12, is going to dramatically change how some people feel about it. And again, I’m hoping that in the next couple of months, we really see the numbers drop in Hawaii.

You mentioned that things are rapidly changing. Do you feel like plans should have been set first before making this announcement that students would be returning in the fall, and there would be no option for distance learning?

Well right now, we’re only about a week, or two weeks depending on the school, of coming up this summer, and I know that principals need direction. Teachers need to know what they need to expect before they leave for the school year. So I think it’s the right decision to be able to do that. It’s just, there’s going to have to be, through the next couple of months, some tinkering on the edges, depending on what happens in our community. But everyone wants to know what they should plan for in August, and I think this sets the direction.

What have you heard from teachers so far? Have any of them expressed any concerns about moving fully back in person?

They’re just starting to hear about this too, so we’re gauging their reaction. But to be clear, our teachers are already back in the classroom. They’re already working with students. This is just increasing it. I think they, throughout this entire pandemic, are just going to continue to argue, and be our best advocates to make sure it’s safe. And to be very clear, the safer that we make sure the perception and the reality of our schools are is going to make sure that more parents and students feel safe. And so that is something that I think has to be the effort of the entire community, and our teachers in our schools, because that’s how we’re going to make sure that more students can come back for face-to-face learning.

This also means bringing back extracurricular activities, like clubs, bands, and athletics, and right now, youth sports is still in some sort of tier system. What do you think about bringing back curricular activities?

I think this pandemic has clearly shown the need for the social interaction component of schools. And one of the most important things we have to focus on when we get back to learning in the fall is not necessarily on the testing, but the social and emotional impact of the pandemic. A lot of our students have gone through trauma. They’ve lost sometimes the learning behaviors. Sometimes they’re so used to being on their phones that it’s difficult to put down those phones and to be able to focus on the teacher. But we also know that there’s many other parts of the schools that’s so important, and that is the club aspects, that’s the athletic components, and those are so important for the social-emotional development of our keiki. So yes, I do think that it’s going to be time to start those as well.