Dozens of lawmakers call on the Hawaii Board of Education to address the Department of Education’s lack of details for the upcoming school year, limited COVID-19 guidelines have been shared by the department but data shows it had a rocky start with distance learning.

The first sentence in a joint letter signed by nearly 70 members of the state legislature said, “The legislature is extremely concerned about the situation at the Department of Education.”

The concern is that the DOE has not shared detailed COVID-19 procedures to reopen its schools or shared specifics on how emergency funding will be spent.

The state’s House Education Chair, Justin Woodson, is one of the lawmakers who signed off on the letter.

Woodson said, “We are hearing from teachers on a regular basis that they want clear guidance from the department, what are the perimeters that they want in place as it relates to moving forward in the Fall.” 

The Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent, Dr. Christina Kishimoto, informed senators the department will need $57.8 million to address internet connection and computer needs for students in most need.

The letter called on remote learning improvements, it cited a DOE survey where half of middle and high school teachers responded that less than 20 percent of their students participated in distance learning.

Woodson said, “I hope there’s a lot of lessons learned from that experience and we can move forward in the future with actual learning.”

Superintendent Kishimoto responded to the letter by lawmakers through a statement:

A month before schools are set to reopen, Hawaii’s legislators have allocated zero dollars from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, from which we had sought $111 million to support public school students during this unprecedented crisis. By comparison, Colorado directed $547 million of its federal CRF funds to its K-12 public school system and Arizona allocated $270 million of its fund to public schools.

This setback is compounded by a $150 million reduction to our state operating funds imposed by the Legislature for this biennium — the equivalent of 23 instructional days.

We have repeatedly articulated to lawmakers our needs, initially focusing on emergency school closures, remote learning and telework, summer learning, and now reopening in the fall — all while keeping students and employees safe.

The Board of Education Chairperson, Catherine Payne, responded to the letter, she writes the criticism comes as a surprise. She said they believe the department has continuously kept lawmakers informed of its plans.

Payne said the board has already reached a timeline of deliverables with the superintendent. Part of the letter said,

Among other things, the Board’s resolution directs the Superintendent to: (1) issue clear protocols to Department schools by July 1, 2020; (2) issue clear and comprehensive guidance to all public schools, including charter schools by July 1, 2020; (3) deliver the protocols and guidance to Department school families and make them publicly available by July 8, 2020; and (4) provide the Board with a comprehensive plan for reopening schools by July 1, 2020.

Woodson said the letter details the expectations from members of the legislature and he looks forward to continuing dialogue with the department.

Woodson said, “We will move forward with the funding, but what we would like to see and what we are strongly suggesting is a great deal of granularity as it relates to the details because so much is at stake.”

The Hawaii Department of Education said it will release a detailed COVID-19 reopening guidance on July 2.