On December 7, Kaiser High School will reopen its gates to Kaiser seniors, with the rest of the student body to return in the 3rd quarter. Principal Justin Mew has introduced a phased reopening plan, with students coming back one grade level at a time, to prevent any potential COVID-19 super-spreader events centered at the school. Mew plans to push back calling for a return to the classroom until he can ensure the Kaiser community feels its students will be safe when doing so.
On September 28, Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani Complex Area Superintendent Dr. Rochelle Mahoe published a letter announcing that principals would be “communicat[ing] their school’s hybrid/blended learning model…with a start date no earlier than Monday, October 26.” Current full-distance learning models have been faced with pitfalls, and a return to the classroom, if only partial, would lessen the impact of distance-unique problems. With guidance from government health agencies, the state Department of Education (DOE) and the principals of the schools have been preparing for the eventual return to their respective campuses. However, the reaction to news of reopening has been mixed, with “a whole spectrum of responses” from community members, said Mew. The backlash led Mew to propose a later reopening date.
For most public school students in Hawaii, classes haven’t been held on campus since the 4th quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. Instead, schools across the state held online “enrichment activities,” in which students’ grades were not recorded. This school year, “enrichment” has given way to “distance learning,” with grades documented as per usual. With enrichment serving as a practice run, the transition has been mostly accepted, with some even enrolling in the Acellus learning program (which takes out classroom learning entirely in favor of video tutorials). However, many others wish to return to the physical classroom—the sooner the better.
At some point, in-person classes will resume, but nobody is certain when exactly that should be. It is widely agreed that the safest time to reopen would be when a reliable coronavirus vaccine is widely available. But every day online is another day spent on less effective learning, as most teachers have little to no experience in distance teaching. Most teachers agree that they want to return, but disagree on how and when they should do it.
It has been the principal’s responsibility to find balance. Mew says the greatest difficulty is reconciling education with students’ safety: “What’s educationally best for our students—academic, social, emotional, physical—is very important to me,” he said, “as well as safety, of students, faculty, staff, [and the] community. It’s all of that coming into play.” By holding meetings, talking to parents, and distributing surveys, Mew has been integrating the various opinions of the Kaiser community. “A principal never works in isolation,” he said. Through interactions with community members, both in and out of school, reopening plans have been taking shape.
These plans, though, are subject to unforeseen variables. “The way that COVID acts is going to make a huge difference…when things turn south…that’ll change things right away,” Mew said. But for now, he wants to push ahead. “Based on the current level, we’re going to do it…to begin phasing in this quarter,” Mew said.
Before a full reopening commences, students will return to campus in stages under various hybrid models. Some are less favored than others—a common complaint of blended models, for example, is that teaching partial classes in person is actually worse than holding online classes in whole groups. One model could have potentially brought back the entire student body by the end of the semester, by recalling individual grade levels biweekly from October 26 on. The planned model is similar to this, but with a start date in December instead. Further adjustments will be clarified by letters from the school.
“I’m still getting more information so I can make that decision, and in the end, it’s going to be my call,” said Mew. When reopening plans for Kaiser are released, whatever or whenever the details are, they will be for the benefit of all parties. And in the meantime, it falls to everyone in the Kaiser community to continue working with distance learning, so that this experiment becomes a positive experience.