EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final segment of a limited series looking back on the year since COVID-19 arrived in Maui County. Each story explores an industry directly impacted and reshaped by the pandemic. Today’s feature focuses on education.
No junior prom. No sports competitions. No in-person learning for months, or even a year.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Maui County schools hard.
Students, teachers and school administrators learned how to pivot, shifting teaching and learning online.
School schedules and in-person learning faced starts and stops as COVID-19 case numbers rose and fell and some campuses had cases among students or staff.
An extended spring break in March 2020 turned to full-time distance learning, a return to the classroom was pushed back multiple times and eventually students never returned for the school year.
“We left spring break mid-March last year, and no one could have predicted that we would not return to in-person classes until August,” said Sacred Hearts School Principal Tonata Lolesio, reflecting over the past year. “The most difficult obstacle was getting students and parents alike to embrace the norm of online learning. Kids got a crash course on being tech savvy.”
Many schools are still relying on distance or hybrid learning as they slowly bring students back to campuses, though some are still more comfortable learning from home.
Currently, all state Department of Education campuses in Maui County have implemented some type of blended learning, said Kathleen Dimino, superintendent for the Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui Complex Area, which includes the largest schools in the county.
“While some schools have more students back than others, all schools are working on getting as many students back as possible for the remainder of this school year,” Dimino said Thursday.
For students and teachers, “back to school” as they once knew it is still a long ways off.
Brave new world
Even though the island of Lanai saw zero cases until October, “the onset of the pandemic was still very disruptive to our school,” Lanai High & Elementary School Principal Elton Kinoshita said.
“The initial pivot to distance learning was challenging for everyone: students, teachers, staff, parents, administrators and even employers,” he said Wednesday. “Teachers had to learn how to adjust to online instruction. Students had to learn to focus in their virtual classrooms, often with the distraction of other siblings who were also attending virtual classrooms.”
The changes not only impacted teachers but other staff as well. Cafeteria workers “had their workload substantially increase with the move to the summer feeding program, which distributed a lunch and a breakfast together,” Kinoshita said. Custodians adjusted to increased sanitation duties.
About two months into the new school year, Lanai had a COVID-19 cluster that went from zero to nearly 100 in about a month. In total, Kinoshita said there were 33 confirmed positive student cases on campus. None were staff members.
“The outbreak in October 2020 was a wake-up call for our community,” Kinoshita said. “Prior to that, the community was cautious but the outbreak reinforced the need to be vigilant at all times and in all situations. The school’s response was to implement all DOH and DOE safety precautions.”
Teachers said last year that they tried everything they could to keep students engaged, especially in middle to high school grades. They turned to YouTube and TikTok videos and even gave away prizes for those who participated in online lessons.
Students struggled with distance learning, especially if they had internet connectivity issues or not enough devices at home. Some were just not motivated after they learned their grades from first through third quarter would be used to determine their final grade while they learned at home during the fourth quarter.
But others who needed to boost their grades, especially to graduate, responded better than others. Kids who preferred to choose their own assignments, a feature of some virtual platforms, thrived in the new environment.
At the top administrative level, challenges included “making a rapid shift” to distance learning and securing resources to ensure students and staff had the technology to support virtual learning, said Lindsay Ball, Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai Complex Area superintendent. The new education landscape also meant “managing the fears of our school communities, from educators to parents” and “rallying for their support” for the new instruction method, Ball said.
Smaller schools go back to class
With smaller enrollments and less red tape than state-run public schools, private schools were able to open up with face-to-face learning in August if they so chose.
However, Lolesio said the school capped class enrollment to adhere to proper distancing.
“Once it was apparent that public schools were not returning to in-person (learning), our phones were ringing off the hook with parents wanting to enroll their children at Sacred Hearts,” she said, although the Lahaina school couldn’t accommodate all the interest due to space and health restrictions.
Sacred Hearts also saw some students leave for various reasons, including parents losing their jobs.
Like other schools, Sacred Hearts spent months preparing by developing guidelines as well as putting in handwashing stations and replacing bathroom faucets and soap dispensers with sensor-equipped, touchless machinery.
Freshmen students have been able to do some activities off-campus, such as planting kalo with the Lahaina Restoration Foundation and learning about working on the water while sailing with Trilogy Excursions.
Large gathering events have also been adjusted; while there will be no annual bazaar, the school is instead holding a Ho’ike Luau just for school families, with half of the students performing on Friday and the other half today.
Smaller public schools were also able to bring students back to the classroom sooner than others.
While most Maui County public schools held off on in-person learning at the start of the school year, Kilohana and Maunaloa elementaries on Molokai have opened to all students in person every day since the beginning of the school year, Ball said.
Special education and younger students also had opportunities for in-person learning throughout the pandemic in hopes of maintaining their progress.
While his counterparts at DOE schools were mainly in distance learning as the new school year arrived, Todd Craine, a special education preschool teacher at Kihei Elementary, had already been back in the classroom since the summer. Over the summer he was at Makawao Elementary to keep his special education vulnerable learners from regressing due to missed instructional time.
Craine said his special education preschoolers do not wear masks as they either have health restrictions or are not able to keep one on. However, he always wears his mask.
“I know some of our teachers have been real nervous about COVID,” he said after school on Thursday. “I’ve been pretty comfortable. The work the school has done, they are doing (what) they can to make people feel comfortable.”
Craine, who also does double duty teaching at the Head Start program on the Kihei campus, said he understood the need to have his students in the classroom and learning with their peers because they need the interaction.
Even with his mostly in-class commitment, he also had to learn how to teach virtually if needed.
“I can throw a pretty good Webex now,” he said of the online videoconferencing platform.
‘Hopeful for what we might have’
The pandemic also produced a whole generation of students for whom “the new normal” now means virtual classes and alternating days on campus with their peers.
Baldwin High School senior Erin Kobashigawa said she realized she is not a good virtual learner.
“I have a harder time focusing in (online) class and learning from videos. I’d much rather learn through face-to-face instruction and hands-on activities like labs,” said Kobashigawa, who will be attending Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University in the fall.
The varsity cross country and track and field athlete will be majoring in forensic science.
Kobashigawa also lost out on a senior night for her sports as well as junior prom, which was canceled a week before it was supposed to happen in 2020.
“I try not to think about what we’ve could’ve had, instead I try to remain hopeful for what we might have, such as in-person graduation and maybe even a Project Graduation,” she said on Tuesday.
Kobashigawa is glad she participated in activities prior to the pandemic. She is a member of the National Honor Society and Baldwin High School’s Executive Board treasurer and is also involved in 4-H.
The hardest thing for her was not being able to see her friends and classmates as often as before. She’s now back at school but only twice a month due to Baldwin’s in-person rotation schedule.
“I miss the social interaction with my classmates and teachers and I feel really disconnected from everyone,” she said.
Maui High School senior Alexis Joy Viloria also misses the high school experience.
“Thanks to COVID, I had to figure out how to run the first official year of the journalism club I started fully online, miss out on my last year of air riflery as well as my annual travels to compete for HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America), my school’s health profession club,” Viloria said on Monday.
Viloria, too, misses the face-to-face learning as her more advanced classes and subjects require a lot of interaction between students.
Viloria, who will attend Stanford in the fall to possibly major in anthropology and minor in journalism, is continuing her distance learning and has not gone back to campus.
She said if she were to go back, it would be similar to being at home as lessons are held through Google Meet, another online platform.
Viloria’s extracurricular activities include National Honor Society; SaberScribes Journalism Club; Air Force Association CyberPatriot; Big Brothers Big Sisters; Maui Waena STEMworks AFTERschool, where she is a mentor; and Fil-Am Voice, where she contributes as a student writer.
Overall, the hardest thing for her is staying motivated.
“As we’re learning from home, sometimes all students want to do is sleep in instead of having to wake up at 8 a.m. five days a week,” she said. “I’ve combated this by trying to look at the positive; I’m almost to the end goal, so I just have to stick it out and do my best so I can say I made it through.”
New tech here to stay
Moving forward, the main issues for schools center on internet connectivity, as well as the fear over the spread of COVID-19.
“The biggest hurdle, not just for public schools but educational institutions in general, is reassuring the public that our campuses are safe,” Ball said. “Schools are an extremely controlled environment with multiple layers of mitigation strategies in place. We want to avoid transmission of the virus on our campuses just as much as our staff, students and parents do.”
Craine said that schools “may be stuck with germ protocol” for a while, especially with COVID-19 variants popping up.
“It’s just the new world we live in,” he said.
While a lasting effect of the pandemic will include things like extra handwashing, increased use of virtual platforms will also likely shape education in years to come. Craine said that learning the technology during the pandemic has been a plus and can be used to assist with teaching, and school administrators agree.
“I predict that with the new skills teachers have developed as a result of the pandemic, teaching and student learning opportunities will only get better,” Dimino said.
Schools, ultimately, want to bring students back, but they will continue to rely on the technology that made distance learning possible.
“It is our goal to bring all students back for in-person learning,” Ball said. “Other than that, our schools will find new ways to harness technology to engage students, staff and stakeholders like never before because of what we experienced over the past year.”
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected].