Hawaii public school students could know by next Tuesday, April 21, how the Department of Education plans to go about eventual re-opening. But while school remains conducted almost entirely online, instruction continues to evolve.

The DOE has backed off from its recent stance that it won’t re-open until 4 weeks without a positive test on each island. But the department still has not said what new path it plans to take. Always Investigating looked into how online school is going for now, and what can be done better.

Since k-12 education across the state shifted into an online and at-home model last month due to COVID-19, kids and parents aren’t the only ones struggling to make it work.

“A lot of our teachers are actually working harder than we’ve ever had to work before,” explained Corey Rosenlee, president of the teachers union Hawaii State Teachers Association. “They’ve had to learn new technology on the fly. They’ve had to provide both online and packets, deal with students individually.”

The online move has exposed glaring gaps at home and between communities in everything from access to devices, to connectivity, and even a place to learn — especially for the homeless or lowest-income students.

“Where’s a student going to study? You’ve got to set up a space in wherever you live and whatever the space challenges are. That’s the place education is going to happen,” explained Mitch D’Olier, member of the State Public Charter School Commission and chairman of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation.

D’Olier adds concerns about internet connectivity: “There will be places that it’s not going to work because there are places it just won’t be. When you’re starting to talk about rural places in Hawaii, you’ll be too far to get to connectivity.”

KHON2 asked the DOE how the department plans to close these gaps. They tell us schools are still working to get devices to students. Complex and state offices are trying to move extra devices. They’re working with internet service providers offering free or reduced-cost access. And teachers are still making packets for students who have no technology access.

But there’s another big concern looming and as-yet unsolved: delivering a free and equal education to all, especially to special needs students.

“I worry about kids that have experienced the achievement gap in the past, and English language learners, in addition to SPED kids, and kids from cultures that are slightly different that we don’t serve well,” D’Olier said. “How can we do each one of these things a little better through distance learning?”

“For our SPED teachers they’re doing amazing jobs,” Rosenlee said. “They’re reaching out to their students and parents individually. They still have to try to do as best they can under these very difficult circumstances. What we’ve been instructed to do is do the best that we can, and so this is definitely a new environment for a lot of our students and their teachers.”

We asked the DOE what provisions they’re making for compliance with state and federal special-learner laws.

“Direct in-person services will not be provided to students at any location. Related services may be considered on a case by case basis and will be provided via telepractice when it is appropriate to do so,” a DOE spokesperson responded. “In cases where telepractice is not feasible, related services will be provided to the greatest extent possible via other distance learning supports.”

“The department cannot just stumble into this and do it, because there would be lawsuits from every special ed parent,” D’Olier said. “Some of the really smart people in the Attorney General’s office need to figure out what’s the answer to this. Is there some kind of a declaratory judgment or declaratory relief?”

“When school resumes in its traditional manner, Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 teams will meet to determine any loss of skills as a result of the extended school closure and the child’s need for compensatory education,” the DOE said.

“When school resumes” is the big unknown.

As of last week it appeared everyone was going to have to hunker down and keep learning online a lot longer, when DOE announced there would have to be a 4-week period with no positive COVID-19 tests before any school could reopen on any island. The DOE revised that stance the day after Always Investigating reported that the Department of Health and the CDC both have pathways for safe school operations even amid some community COVID spread. The DOE now says they will be posting an update by April 21 – this coming Tuesday — about a new approach to eventual reopening.

“Obviously we could open schools without having assemblies,” explained Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson. “Here we have staggered tracks for learning often. You could open up schools at different times of day or stretch the school year out and have people come to school on different days. There could be a lot of ways to decompress the crowding that occurs at schools and make learning options available.”