At Waimanalo Elementary and Middle School, principal Wade Araki said his classrooms are finally starting to look like they did before the pandemic. Desks are grouped together to foster collaborative learning instead of keeping students at least six feet apart, and more than 370 children have returned to campus this fall.
For the first time in more than two years, Hawaii’s public schools resumed classes in early August with relaxed Covid-19 restrictions and no mask mandates or quarantine rules as the coronavirus relates to ebb.
“While we are always very mindful of healthy habits, schools can focus even more on our primary mission of education,” Superintendent Keith Hayashi said Thursday at the school board meeting.
But the New Year is still below normal. Early childhood educators and advocates remain concerned that the state’s youngest learners have fallen behind in their development. Elementary students are still struggling to adjust to classroom learning after months of online instruction during key formative years. And learning loss is hard to reverse.
In response, schools across the state have turned to a range of new programs and initiatives to promote academic learning and students’ social-emotional development.
Students continue to deal with the disruption and stress the pandemic has inflicted on their lives, said Andrea Alexander, the family school and community liaison for the Hawaii State Family Engagement Centerwhich aims to increase family and community involvement in schools.
She added that the public health crisis has made it especially important for educators to take a whole-child approach, which takes into account how students’ lives outside of school affect their performance in the classroom.
“When a student is in the classroom…that student also represents a family and a community,” Alexander said.
This approach manifested itself differently in each school.
Students and teachers at Ilima Intermediate in West Oahu take at least 30 minutes a day to meet in small consultative groups, reflecting on their emotions and sharing their personal challenges, said lab teacher Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin. seventh and eighth grade STEM.
“The way we treat it too is like a school family, where that’s where we talk about the tough things that are going on,” Milianta-Laffin said.
The school started advisory groups before the pandemic, Milianta-Laffin said. However, this year marks the first time that teachers have incorporated social-emotional learning into sessions, helping students learn to decipher social cues and facial expressions – a skill that is lacking after so much isolated time at home. and wearing masks, she added.
By the end of July, the state Department of Education had allocated nearly $40 million in federal Covid relief funds to promote social-emotional learning in schools. The money was used to provide counselors and social workers to support summer school students and provide trauma-informed care services for Windward Schools on Oahu, among other initiatives.
“We have seen a decrease in the social-emotional development of our children and in the number of children receiving services.” —Stacy Kong
On the island of Hawaii, elementary students gather at 8 a.m. to complete a morning oli, or chant, at Kau High and Pahala Elementary School. The school’s decision to complete oli daily since the return to in-person learning has helped students prioritize their mental health and come together as a community, school trustee Meghan Harris said.
Schools also need to update students academically. Most campuses opened last year for in-person learning but maintained strict Covid protocols that were only lifted for the start of the new school year.
Building on the DOE’s Tiered Support System, a framework that encourages schools to track and promote student achievement, Ilima Intermediate launched “MTSS Fridays”. Once a week, students meet in groups based on their academic needs and receive tutoring in difficult subjects, Milianta-Laffin said. Children can also use the time to catch up on homework.
“We were just racking our brains as teachers to say, ‘How do we support these kids? ‘” Milianta-Laffin said. “It’s not good to give less work, we can’t lower the rigor and expectations, but how do we get them through in a way that they can succeed?”
The state has tackled the same issues on a larger scale. According to DOE spokeswoman Krislyn Yano, the department has significantly expanded its summer programs over the past two years, specifically targeting students who have not met grade-level standards in math and English, or who were kept at home during their younger years.
The new legislation also tries to meet the needs of students by strengthening families. Act 129, enacted in June, establishes a five-year pilot program to develop more family resource centers under the Department of Social Services. The centres, which may be on school campuses or outside the community, offer a range of services to families, from counseling to childcare.
Kathleen O’Dell is Network Coordinator at Hawaii Ohana Support Network, which supports family resource centers throughout the state. She said the first school-based family resource centers emerged in response to families’ needs for basic supplies and resources after the pandemic began in March 2020. The state now has four.
Kerrie Urosevich of Early Childhood Action Strategy said researchers have yet to determine the long-term effects of the pandemic on early child development. But, she added, the increased isolation and stress of the past two and a half years may be linked to the increase in social emotional delays seen in young children.
Local providers have also seen a decline in the number of students receiving early learning and intervention services, which can further impact children’s social skills, self-regulation and academic readiness, O said. ‘Dell.
Megan McCorriston, chief executive of Seagull Schools, said concerns over Covid-19 were preventing many parents from sending their children to kindergarten, even though the kindergarten was able to reopen for in-person teaching in May 2020 , as it was considered an essential service.
While more pupils returned to Seagull Schools this year, others stayed away because their families could not afford tuition, she added.
The Early Learning Executive Office, which oversees public pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds across the state, has also seen declining enrollment since the pandemic began. During the 2020-21 school year, EOEL served 302 children, down 160 from the previous year. Enrollment rose to 344 children last year, but still remained below pre-pandemic levels.
McCorriston said the pandemic has affected each student differently and pointed out that young children have shown impressive resilience in the face of change. The state has also redoubled its efforts to promote child development and identify developmental delays as early as possible.
During the 2022 legislative session, the Early Intervention Section of the Department of Health received $3.6 million in additional funding. EIS, which serves children with special needs up to age 3, has seen an increase in referrals for assessments since July 2019, supervisor Stacy Kong said.
“We have seen a decrease in the socio-emotional development of our children and in the number of children receiving services,” Kong said. “We know the pandemic is impacting children because it is impacting families at every level.”
The $3.6 million will be used to meet the staffing needs of local agencies that provide EIS services, Kong said. She said the funding will help recruit and retain more occupational and physical therapists, social workers, care coordinators and other staff.
Family resource centers have also done their part in promoting early childhood education, especially now that their young clients are back in person, O’Dell said.
Suzy Mitchell, who runs the Kailua Elementary Family Resource Center, said the center plans to launch its own Parent Involvement Preschool next month, which will offer classes for children and their caregivers twice a week.
“I think we’re all in recovery mode…I don’t meet anyone who says they feel like everything is fine, it’s perfect and everything is back to normal,” Mitchell said. “But people are moving forward as best they can.”
Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.