HONOLULU (KHON2) — A windfall of federal COVID relief money has yet to be spent statewide, but hundreds of millions of dollars specifically for public education is among the larger sums.

Hawaii’s Department of Education (DOE) got more than $400 million from a variety of federal COVID emergency funds, and the department has yet to spend most of it. Advocates are calling for more targeting and transparency.

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Federal COVID relief packages take the ABC’s and 1-2-3’s of education to the next level with an alphabet soup of huge dollar-figure rescue funds.

“This congressional money was first put in there to help safely reopen our schools,” explained Terrence George, president and CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. “And second, to address the yawning learning loss and all the inequities that have been laid bare all over Hawaii and all across the nation in the world due to this pandemic.”

Always Investigating analyzed the five different major grants totaling nearly $421 million. Only about one-third has been spent. A quarterbillion dollars — $251 million to be exact — is sitting on the books.

“KHON asking the tough questions and doing the digging is very important because, ultimately, our officials are accountable to the public,” said David Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN. “And so I think that’s where if we can’t, as a public, understand how these funds are being used to really help kids in a transformational way, then that’s when we need to get our U.S. senators and the federal government involved.”

The DOE has posted monthly updates with outlines of how they would like to spend the money but huge swaths of it are earmarked in to-be-determined generic categories or covering line items of past budget shortfalls. Among the biggest set-asides are:

  • $65 million for teacher pay differentials
  • $54 million for legislative cuts
  • Tens of millions for the weighted student formula, a longtime school funding mechanism

“There’s just this assumption that filling the budget holes is important, and it’s going to impact kids. “Well, I think we’re at a point now where we’ve got to do more than that we’ve actually got to explain; it’s not about building back to the status quo, but it’s building back better than the status quo.”

David Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN

Just two of the top five allotment categories — $31 million for distance learning and $27 million for food — relate directly to coronavirus pandemic issues

“The food delivery that the school system did was unbelievable,” George stated. “And it shows what happens when we see this as an emergency.”

We have not yet seen big red flags of ‘nice-to-haves’ instead of ‘need-to-haves.’

“Some negative examples we’ve seen — nationally, they’ve been using the funds on things like adding new football turf, which is not the not the purpose of these funds,” Miyashiro said. “It’s not just a ‘let’s check off all your wish-list items, because we’re giving you a blank check.’ The goal, in my opinion, is we have to address this learning loss, we have to address it now.”

KHON2 asked the DOE for interviews on how they will maximize the federal relief money: What has worked well so far? What is still coming up?

A spokesperson for the DOE would not make anyone available for an interview, and instead saying they will make more details public at next month’s board meeting, adding: “Until then, the folks working on this are focused on completing those plans, including the board’s requirement to solicit and incorporate stakeholder input.”

Stakeholders, such as parents, students, and child advocates, told KHON2 that both academics and emotional wellbeing hit rock bottom due to the pandemic.

“The social emotional part is huge,” said Wendy Nakasone-Kalani of Parents for Public Schools Hawaii. “What we’re hearing from parents and even service providers is an increase in anxiety amongst kids K through 12.”

“When you look at the student achievement numbers, even though they don’t tell the whole story, we have a pandemic every day of 100,000 cases of students who are trying desperately to catch up,” George explained. “And teachers are trying to desperately to help catch them up.”

“We’d like the department to address that, and what it looks like,” Nakasone-Kalani said related to learning loss, “whether it be additional digital devices, electronic devices to support learning, whether it be more money going toward teacher recruitment. If they are able to recruit more teachers, possibly we could see a decrease in the class size so that class sizes wouldn’t be as big and there’ll be more interactive learning lessons.”

“One priority that we do not see reflected in the department’s plan is workforce stabilization. We believe these payments, which were supported by the Legislature, are imperative to alleviate critical shortages in our schools. Furthermore, we believe these payments need to be extended to the entire department workforce as we are seeing burnout among adult supervisors, janitorial and cafeteria staff, in addition to school counselors, teachers and administrators. Given that so many other districts throughout the country have been able to accomplish this, Hawaii must be able to do the same.”

Osa Tui Jr., Hawaii State Teachers Association president

There is still time to fix the plan, and the accountability and transparency that should go along with such a big pot of money. The last dollar can be spent as late as 2024.

“We can’t wait a year or two for that to happen — it has as to be happening right now,” Miyashiro said. “We need a real time understanding of what’s happening with these funds. I don’t think myself or our advocates that we’ve worked with have really felt comfortable with what we’ve seen coming out in reporting to the board of education. Given how much students have been impacted by the last couple of years, we really can’t let any dollar go to waste. And the primary way we can ensure that we’re having an impact is how clear is the plan to use the funds. And what we mean by that is when we look at other states, like Tennessee, and they say, ‘we’re going to focus on tutoring.’ It’s not, ‘let’s let every school figure out how to do this.’”

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“The real big question for me is, how do we scale up what works and sustain it beyond the three years where we’ll have this extra federal money?” George noted.