Federal leaders are asking the state Department of Education to ensure it’s ready to provide effective schooling — not just enrichment — for Hawaii’s 180,000 public school students if classrooms cannot reopen.

In a letter signed by all four of Hawaii’s congressional delegates, the DOE superintendent is asked to respond to a series of specific questions about how distance learning is being improved to ensure no one is left behind. The delegation wants to see drastic improvements in time for the summer and fall sessions, with $43 million in federal dollars available to support it.

“We understand this particular school year there’s not going to be mandatory distance learning, but we want the Department of Education to start gearing up for a worst-case scenario,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. “We don’t want for them to just hope that the virus goes away.”

KHON2 has asked the D.O.E. for their response to the letter and will post that when we get it.

“Out of the 180,000 kids, some are getting some measure of distance learning and some are not,” Schatz said. “Now there are a couple of problems: one is this is new to everybody, two is not everybody has internet access. And the third problem here is that right now it’s optional, and as we move into the summer and the fall, school can’t be optional.”

Always Investigating recently reported on the D.O.E.’s gaps in reaching students across all demographics and abilities through online education during COVID-19. Our reports also covered how both the federal CDC and the state Department of Health say schools can safely return to holding classes onsite under certain circumstances, especially in areas with low to moderate spread of COVID-19.

“The D.O.E. should be relying on our own Department of Health, our own school of medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization in terms of what the standards are that need to be met in order for school to be reopened,” Schatz said.

“We don’t know where we’re going to land yet, but if we have certain islands with 0 cases and really 0 incoming flights effectively, then we have to consider what’s appropriate in terms of providing public education,” he added. “We don’t want to go too fast here, but we also have to start to plan for various contingencies. It’s very difficult when you’re dealing with 180,000 kids to have multiple plans, but we have to plan for the possibility of an accelerated school scheduled, of a distance learning scenario, or a back-to-business scenario. Part of our letter is to ask them whether they’ve gone through that planning process and what kinds of federal funds would assist them in implementing whatever plan makes the most sense in those moments.”