Maui Public Schools Continue With Mostly Distance Learning as Island Opens To More Tourism
Today, Hawaiʻi launched its “Safe Travels” program that enables tourists to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine if they meet requirements that include proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of coming to the state.
So, if state government thinks it is safe enough for transpacific travelers to vacation in Maui – and for residents to drink in bars and eat in restaurants – many parents like Spencer Landon of Kīhei want to know why it is not safe enough for his two children to learn in person at public schools.
Two weeks ago, Landon started a petition on Change.org with a title: “Open the schools to save our children.”
“Yes, at first we were nervous and afraid,” Landon wrote in the petition. “We removed our children from playgrounds and sports, lathered their hands with chemicals and alcohol wipes because we thought it was best for them. Our job as parents is to always do what is in our child’s best interest.”
But after months of his kids learning virtually, he wrote: “Our children are under attack to be turned into numb, desensitized non-constructive thinkers. They’re all at home glued to an electronic device that doesn’t allow them to interact with a single classmate. This is not healthy. This is not natural.”
Landon’s reasons for supporting the reopening of Maui’s 31 public schools also include that parents cannot go to work and the state’s new Department of Health (DOH) guidelines support the return of children to the classroom in Maui.
On Sept. 17, DOH issued a 17-page Guidance for Schools to reopen safely – not only for the children, but also for the teachers and school staff who can be more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19.
The County of Maui meets the first DOH “consideration” to enable all children to return to in-person learning: 0-5 cases per 10,000 people over 14 days, by island of residence.
Maui has had only 11 cases total over the past 14 days and only 24 cases in the past month. This excludes the 11 cases that were reported on Oct. 13 but from an August outbreak in an assisted living facility. There are now 18 known active COVID-19 cases in Maui.
And, from the start of the school year to Oct. 9, there have been five COVID-19 cases related to schools in Maui County; three cases were employees and two cases were students, according to the state Department of Education.
Despite the low number, most of the 31 public schools started the second quarter on Oct. 12 with distance learning – and many are likely to continue that way through Dec. 18, the end of the semester.
For public schools, it’s not simple to transition from distance to blended to total in-person learning, both Maui school complex superintendents say.
DOH listed 13 requirements that should be in place for schools to transition to both blended and in-person learning. These requirements include physical distancing (ideally, at least 6 feet), a cleaning/disinfection plan that has a minimum of daily cleaning of all high-touch surfaces, and plans for organizing students and staff into small groups that remain together throughout the day and do limited mixing, especially among the young students.
And for just blended learning, where there is part in-person and part distance learning, DOH guidance says schools need to adhere to 50 percent capacity at a school facility and 50 percent capacity on school transportation.
But while meeting the requirements is challenging, Kathleen Dimino, Superintendent of the Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui school complex, said: “The biggest challenge is addressing the fears and the wide range of opinions about what schools should do.”
Lindsay Ball, Superintendent of Maui’s other school complex, Hāna-Lahainaluna-Lānaʻi-Molokaʻi, agreed: “There has been a serious divide among those who don’t want to return any groups to school to the other side that says we need to go on living.”
Dimino said that several schools have conducted surveys, and from what she has seen, it is almost evenly divided between parents who want in-person learning for their kids and those who think it is too risky at this time.
Dimino oversees 20 of Maui’s public schools and all but one started the second quarter distance learning. Only Lokelani Intermediate School in Kīhei began the quarter with a blended model.
“Lokelani is able to do this early because enrollment is low and they have the space to keep kids 6 feet apart,” Dimino said. “This is not the case with other schools.”
Dimino said Maui public schools have access to enough personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies to meet the DOH requirements.
Not only do the parents have differing views, but so do the teachers. While some teachers feel safe to have children back in their classrooms, other teachers have health concerns, with some already retiring early.
Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said between 30 and 40 percent of its 17,500 teachers are high risk with the virus due to age and underlying health conditions. He also said the teachers do not have the option of teaching virtually when schools do reopen.
Rosenlee said one step toward reopening schools should be for the Department of Education and the Department of Health to this week accept the Centers for Disease Control’s more stringent metrics for number of COVID-19 cases.
“The question that also really needs to be answered is if schools open can they stay open and not just open with low [COVID-19 case] numbers,” Rosenlee said. “… Right now [the state] is opening tourism today. Can we open tourism effectively or does it lead to a spike?”
He said it’s best for now to “choose a lane and stay in it.”
Each Maui public school is providing a plan to its superintendent for learning the rest of the quarter. Dimino said she reviews her schools’ plans to ensure they meet state requirements. She expects all plans will be completed by the beginning of November. Some plans are already done and soon will be announced by the individual schools.
“Now that we are having tourists back on the island again, schools also have to be ready for what could happen,” Dimino said.
Ball oversees the other 11 public schools in Maui County, with most of them located in remote areas where community spread has been minimal. Several of the 11 schools offered blended/in-person learning during the first quarter and others are now in the midst of transitioning to either blended or in-person learning.
“We’re just working hard to make people comfortable and confident in all the things we are doing to keep campuses safe – whether it’s parents or teachers or staff,” Ball said. “COVID causes scare and concerns for people, and understandably so. We don’t want people sick or to cause an outbreak. We need to be careful.”
Both superintendents said that all of Maui’s public schools have offered in-person learning for vulnerable children, which includes those with special needs and those who don’t have access to connectivity. Although, connectivity issues now have been addressed for many of the children.
But for those children who are struggling with virtual learning, Ball said schools have been having their counselors reach out to those kids. Schools also are utilizing their school resource officers from the Maui Police Department to help monitor children who are struggling.
Some working parents have been upset that the public schools could not provide in-person learning for their children due to having no childcare.
“It is tough and challenging for everybody,” Ball said. “This is new to the entire system.”