Kishimoto: Reopening of schools to be approved by health, state, county officials

The state Board of Education will have metrics in place next week to determine whether in-person schooling is safe to resume.

During a lengthy meeting Thursday afternoon, board members discussed with state Department of Education officials their concerns with the department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more than four hours, board members grilled state Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and other education officials for details about the current plan to return to in-person classes after four weeks of distance learning.

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While the discussion veered between several different topics, the most widely discussed subjects were concerns about safety and the technical aspects of distance learning.

In response to concerns that the DOE has not established criteria to determine when reopening schools will be considered safe, Kishimoto said such plans will be revealed soon. After a meeting with state Department of Health officials next Monday, she said, plans will be finalized next week, about two weeks before in-person schooling is scheduled to resume.

Kishimoto reiterated that the Department of Education will make a final decision whether to allow students back on campuses no later than Sept. 8.

All DOE decisions regarding reopening will also be vetted and approved by the Department of Health, Gov. David Ige and the county mayors, Kishimoto said.

Assistant Superintendent Randall Tanaka also said the DOE has sufficient personal protective equipment for 60 days, while the department is working with vendors on all islands to clean campuses each evening.

Meanwhile, the DOE acquired 34,000 new devices — including laptops and tablets — through federal funding to allow lower-income students to access remote learning courses from home, and wireless hot spots are being distributed to increase connectivity.

“We would like to see the connectivity issue get solved long-term,” Kishimoto said. “We’re solving it now, but a long-term solution would be better for our students.”

Several testifiers commented before the meeting, expressing deep concerns about the safety of students and faculty in the face of the pandemic, as well as the quality of education that can be provided given the circumstances. Some wondered whether teachers will be allowed to conduct remote lessons from campus — Kishimoto said she does not think a unilateral decision is appropriate for such an issue, saying that decision will be left to individual principals.

Some other testifiers had very specific complaints about the DOE’s use of the online learning platform Acellus Learning Accelerator. Citing social media posts and a single article from 2005, some testifiers claimed Acellus was founded by a cult leader and that its curriculum uses racial slurs and inappropriate, sexually charged language.

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Interim Assistant Superintendent Alisa Bender said Acellus told the DOE that those claims were “tied to a competitor” and are unsubstantiated.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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