DOE: Distance learning will be used during the first four weeks of the quarter

Big Island public schools, along with most other schools on the neighbor islands, will transition entirely to distance learning for the first four weeks of instruction, the state Department of Education announced Tuesday.

The move comes a week before students are expected to start the school year and just four days after the DOE said Oahu schools would temporarily move to online classes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases there and as new restrictions were implemented to combat that surge.

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All neighbor island schools, with the exception of Molokai schools and Hana High and Elementary on Maui, will follow a three-phase plan for distance learning, which includes in-person training, full distance learning and a possible transition to blended learning, the DOE said Tuesday.

According to the DOE, students will be scheduled to return to campuses from Aug. 17-20 to connect with their teachers, receive training on distance learning platforms and address issues with connectivity and accessibility.

Special considerations will be given for more vulnerable students and their families for more in-person access to schools and teachers.

Starting Aug. 17, school cafeterias will serve grab-and-go meals for enrolled students.

From Aug. 24-Sept. 11, full distance learning will be implemented.

According to the DOE, special education services that can’t be provided in this format will be available in person, and supervised in-person learning labs will be available at schools for students who don’t have Wi-Fi access.

The DOE, along with the governor’s office and state Department of Health, will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and assess whether students can safely return to in-person and blended learning models after four weeks.

If distance learning continues for the remainder of the first quarter, an announcement will be made by each complex area superintendent on Sept. 8, the DOE said.

“This transition prioritizes the health and safety of our students and staff while ensuring equity of access for high-needs and underprivileged students,” said Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area Superintendent Esther Kanehailua in a news release. “Student engagement and family needs during distance learning will be important factors in our decision-making as we move ahead.”

Kanehailua did not immediately return a follow-up phone call.

Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area Superintendent Chad Keone Farias, however, said distance learning at the start of the year provides educators more time to prepare for distance learning.

Teachers returned to campus July 29 for training, with the expectation students would be back in class.

“We’ve been spending these last few days with one eye on distance learning and one on face-to-face (instruction),” Farias said.

While it varies between schools, Farias said between 15% and 42% of parents selected distance learning models for their children, but teachers haven’t had the time to focus their training on that.

“I’m confident that as we work through this, we’ll have students on campus,” Farias said.

There was a need to “buy ourselves some time until we have the confidence of our principals and teachers back to a level that is acceptable,” he said. “… They’ve worked so hard at these face-to-face models. If the confidence is not there, there’s no way we can implement that safely for our kids.”

The distance learning model also calls for “learning hubs,” or areas on campus where students can congregate safely and use the Wi-Fi and devices, Farias explained.

State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said during a media call Tuesday that the lack of internet access at home is one of the greatest hurdles for distance learning.

“While not having a device at home is not our biggest impediment, our students either have devices at home or will have a loaner device from the school,” she said. “Where we have the biggest challenge is insuring that every child has internet access. And for those children who do not have internet access, they will be able to come to the school campus and be assigned a space to do distance learning from the school campus.

“We are working … with state procurement to bring in additional My-Fi hot spots. And as those become available, students who are in the learning hub because of the Wi-Fi challenge will be able to get a My-Fi hub and be able to go home and start … distance learning from home.”

Farias said his complex area also will continue using “mobile learning labs,” a pilot program that launched this summer in four locations throughout the state, including Ka‘u and Pahoa.

According to Farias, the mobile lab will travel to various areas in those communities, offering Wi-Fi and a charging station, as well as providing activities and snacks.

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Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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