Public schools prepare for return of students

Distance learning still offered at some schools

Pomaikai Elementary School educational assistant Hollie Batulayan accepts a pair of bags of school supplies from a parent Thursday afternoon as fellow educational assistant Abe Hernandez looks on. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Molokai High School librarian Diane Mokuau is both excited and nervous about the start of the public school year that gets underway for most students Tuesday.

It will be the first time since the pandemic started that majority of students will be back on campus as the state Department of Education has pushed to get all students back in classrooms for in-person learning.

“Me, personally, (I’m) excited, because we get to see everybody,” Mokuau said Friday morning. “The library was closed last year, so now it’s open . . . but it’s a little bit nervous, right?”

Everyone of high school age is eligible to be vaccinated, but not all students may have gotten the shot, she said.

A cap on the number of students in the library still need to be established, since it normally gets “jam-packed” during recess and lunch, she added.

Pomaikai educational assistant Gina Jones carries bags of individual students’ supplies into the cafeteria Thursday. Since parents are not allowed on campus and there are no preschool orientation events, all the supplies the students need were dropped off and then transported to their teachers’ classrooms to be waiting for them when they arrive for in-person classes next week. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Mokuau credited Molokai High School Principal Katina Soares for meeting with teachers and staff this past week to go over rules and protocols including mask-wearing, hand sanitizing and distancing.

Last school year, as some students returned to campus, Mokuau said she and others preached three things.

“We said the main thing is keep your mask on, wash your hands as much as you can and stay home if you are sick,” said Mokuau, who, amid the challenges facing educators last year, was one of two librarians nationwide to be named 2021 School Librarian of the Year.

Those directives remain valid as the state Department of Health last week issued its COVID-19 guidance for schools, which calls for masks in classrooms, even if the person is vaccinated. It also calls for maintaining at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms “when possible.”

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said that what schools have done to accommodate the distancing may vary, but pointed out that some students were able to return for in-person learning during the final quarter of last school year.

And during the summer, 26,000 students were enrolled in summer learning opportunities at 222 schools statewide, with most participating in face-to-face learning.

But parents and students who want distance learning can choose it again this year, although not all Maui District schools are not offering it. According to the DOE website, Maui District schools offering distance learning programs are Iao and Kalama intermediate schools, Lahainaluna and Molokai high schools, and Lihikai and Wailuku elementaries.

Kalani said that the DOE will partner with complex areas that are not able to provide a distance option “to pool resources and expertise and reduce the burden on individual schools.”

She added that families need to work with their child’s school principal to discuss eligibility, and the principal will make a referral to the state. Distance learning seats are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The DOE on Friday did not have data “readily available” on how many students in Maui County had signed up for distance learning.

King Kekaulike High School Principal Amy Strand said that not many families have inquired about distance learning.

“The socialization part of being on campus physically is such an important component to a teen’s emotional health that most of our families are eager to be back,” Strand said.

But she also understands that some students may be vulnerable and may need to learn outside the classroom. The school will work with them as well.

Strand said the school is fortunate that its students are old enough to be eligible for a vaccine and “many of our students and families have chosen to take advantage of this.”

King Kekaulike held a vaccine clinic on its campus in late May and another for the second dose in early June, Strand said.

She doesn’t know exact numbers on students who were vaccinated, but said the clinic did have a good turnout.

“I believe this is helping families to feel more comfortable in sending their teen back to school,” she added.

As COVID-19 cases tick upward on Maui, Strand said the school is continuing to monitor reports and is making sure that it is following all DOH guidelines.

In addition to mask-wearing by adults and students, hand-sanitizing stations have been installed in multiple locations and staff continues to clean and sanitize high-touch surfaces.

“While we are not in control of what happens with COVID cases on our island, as a school we can assure our families that we are taking every precaution to keep their kids healthy and safe,” Strand said.

Overall, the Upcountry high school has close to 1,200 students.

Typically only freshmen come to campus on the first day, but with many sophomores not coming in person to campus last year, both ninth and 10th graders will have the campus to themselves to get acclimated on Wednesday.

“Teachers seem excited and eager to welcome students back in person,” Strand said. “They are energized and working hard getting things ready.”

At Maui County’s largest public school, Maui High, Principal Jamie Yap said teachers have gotten rid of things they didn’t need, moved bookshelves and have cleaned out classrooms to try to accommodate distancing.

“We won’t know until we start if we can manage everybody,” he said on Thursday afternoon, noting that it also depends on the number of students and the class size.

But, “it sounds like we should be able to move forward with enough seats, enough distancing, facing in the same direction, not looking at each other, looking one way and if they keep their mask on we should be good to go.”

“Nobody has come to me saying they can’t do it. Everyone is trying to figure out how to do it,” Yap added.

As for enrollment, Yap said, “we have over 2,100 on our books and I like to think all of them will be coming back, but not all of them will be coming back.”

Yap said he understood if some students wanted to continue distance learning, citing the Delta variant and rising case counts.

He didn’t know how many students had chosen that option.

Like King Kekaulike, Maui High will have sophomores join the freshmen at orientation, giving them the campus to themselves on Tuesday.

The DOE said it is promoting but not requiring vaccinations for students and staff, saying that it’s a core part of its COVID prevention strategy that it plans to pair with other measures like masks and physical distancing to reduce the risk of infection.

Maui High plans to hold a drive-thru vaccination clinic for the public but also encourages its students and their families to participate. Clinics will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 10 and 12 in the school parking lot, with follow-up shots later.

Yap said he is excited and is inspired by the way all of his staff, from the office to custodians to teachers and everyone in between, made last year successful.

“We were prepared for last year’s challenges and we have to prepare for this year’s challenges,” Yap said. “It’s pretty exciting, it should be fun.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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