When Haha‘ione Elementary School returned to in-person learning in 2021, it was hard for Chanel Jamieson, whose son’s recent diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes made him susceptible to severe COVID-19 symptoms. “I was worried, especially in the beginning. I’d ask the teacher to put him next to a window or a door so he would get fresh air. We even bought him a portable air purifier,” Jamieson says. As restrictions loosened, she became more comfortable—but she still asks her son to wear a mask both indoors and outdoors. “The school has been really good about communicating, and the principal is always involved,” she adds. “I felt like I could always ask questions or voice concerns with the faculty. I’m feeling OK about schools going back to normal and hoping he won’t get sick.”
It also wasn’t easy for John and Kelly Reyes to see their youngest daughter, Trinie, start kindergarten at Āliamanu Elementary School, with mask mandates and isolated lunch breaks. Or, to see their older daughter, Trixie, missing the interaction with teachers and friends during distance learning. But the Reyeses noticed the resilience in both their children. “The past three years have been a learning experience for all of us,” John Reyes says. “I think going back to normal will be OK, as long as we continue to teach our kids common sense, good hygiene and to make smart choices.”
Many families felt similar anxieties and disappointments as their children navigated through the unfamiliar school environment and changing restrictions. As the state looks to returning to normal this fall, parents might be wondering how to prepare their kids for the new school season. With counts rising at the time of writing, it’s hard to plan when we don’t know what to expect.
We talked to two private schools, the Hawai‘i Department of Education and a public school teacher to learn how things may return to normal this fall and what might be here to stay.
Island Pacific Academy recently had its May Day event, the first social gathering for the school in two years. “It was wonderful!” Gerald Teramae, head of school, says. With the upcoming fall semester, he’s hoping for more of these in-person events for the school community.
At the school, indoor masking is still mandatory, masking outdoors is optional, and the fancy HEPA system to filter the air is a permanent fixture. For the fall semester, the school hopes to do away with indoor masks, pending case counts and Department of Health recommendations, and the school has already moved away from mandatory weekly testing and wellness pre-checks.
“I feel very confident in our faculty and that they’ve done a great job in terms of that transition from where we were prior to the pandemic, through pandemic and coming out of the pandemic,” Teramae says. “And if we have to pivot back, I feel confident that our teachers have really instilled support and safety for our students and there’s enough trust and confidence from parents. If we do need to bring back any policies, we will.”
During the height of the pandemic, Punahou School’s elementary students ate lunch at individual desks with shields, all facing one direction and mostly in silence. After lunch, they’d put on masks and play outside, but in rotating cohorts and set apart by boundaries on the grass. Now outdoor masking is optional, and lunchtime feels more relaxed.
It’s exciting, especially for the younger learners who started kindergarten during the pandemic and are now starting second grade this fall. “They’re so excited to be back to normal,” says Todd Chow-Hoy, Punahou’s junior school principal. “The little ones are the most resilient. They’re the joy during the pandemic, just seeing the way they rolled with the different protocols. Even though we can’t see their whole face, we can see their smiles.”
For fall, Punahou is looking forward to more field trips, in-person parent nights and open houses. “We’re aligning ourselves with the Department of Health, and we’ll continue to do what we need to do,” Chow-Hoy says. The school plans to continue masking indoors and keeping outdoor masking optional in the fall. For students 16 years and older, vaccines will continue to be mandated unless they have medical exemptions. For the youngest learners coming into the fall, the school plans to start with half groups or half days. “Students will come on campus, acclimate and get to see their teachers before we really start to kick off the year. There will be opportunities for deans to meet families to answer questions that they may have. Establishing that partnership from early ages is important,” Chow-Hoy says. “I’m hoping this fall to secure those kinds of experiences for kids, and it’s part of what they remember the most about their time in school, and it’s those memories that we want our students to capture.”
He adds, wryly, “We’ll see though. It’s one of those things where after every school break, something happens, and we have to pivot and make a change.”
“I feel very confident in our faculty and that they’ve done a great job in terms of that transition from where we were prior to the pandemic, through pandemic and coming out of the pandemic.”
— Gerald Teramae, head of school, Island Pacific Academy
Meanwhile, public schools will follow state Department of Health guidelines when it comes to any changes to mask policies this fall, says Nanea Kalani, communications director at the DOE. At the time of writing this article, public schools are extending indoor masking requirements through summer. “We will continue to follow the lead of local public health authorities regarding COVID-19 protocols in schools,” Kalani says. “We’ve worked very closely with DOH throughout the pandemic to ensure our COVID-19 protocols are aligned and will continue to do so for the new school year.”
Utilizing digital tools
Whitney Aragaki, biology teacher at Waiākea High School and the 2022 Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year, says the same is true for all DOE schools: The pandemic pushed schools to infuse digital technologies to create interactive multimedia experiences.
“Whether it’s Google classroom or Schoology, every school is going to have an online learning management system. We’re seeing a shift in how our students turn in work, from elementary through high school,” she says. She says students in the DOE system are communicating more via email because each of them has an email address to use, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Eighth graders can now easily communicate with their ninth grade teachers even before starting their next grade. “Boundaries are getting blurred, and it’s a good thing,” Aragaki says.
During the lockdown, she wasn’t able to collect notes and drawings for class, so she transitioned her students to using digital notebooks. “The platform was robust—students could ask questions, I could embed comments and questions in the notes and let them do activities. For kids who were out due to COVID-19 or even family vacations, they could access it on their phones or laptop. I think we’ll move forward continuing that in the new school year.”
Down the road, IPA plans to incorporate an additional distance learning program for prospective students from around the world. “It might be ideal for families whose students have a passion in acting or ballet or whatever it might be, they could still be students at IPA and follow our curriculum from wherever they are in the world, like a virtual school. We never thought of those ideas until the pandemic hit and we started distance learning,” Teramae says.
IPA is able to better partner with students across the globe. “For Japanese class, we’ve met online with a high school in Shirone and worked together to hold a virtual relationship with them where [students] share cultural experiences with them,” Teramae says. “We’ve had similar experiences like this before, but the pandemic really pushed it forward.”
Focus on Social-Emotional Learning
For kindergarten through fifth grade, Punahou has intentionally created space and opportunities for students to tend to social-emotional needs. What used to be 15 to 20 minutes of homeroom has become an hourlong block of time in which teachers can check in with kids. “The time is spent focusing on regulating [and] understanding emotions and meta moments to help kids pause and reflect and [be] able to articulate on what’s going on. We’re planning to keep this,” Chow-Hoy says. School leaders have also noticed that younger children are still learning about playground etiquette and conflict resolution, and trying to get a grasp of unwritten rules. The school hired additional assistant teachers to help support kids on the playground; they’re also here to stay.
Similarly, IPA has shifted its advisory program for both upper and elementary students. The program was meant to have a set curriculum, but now, the faculty allows more flexibility. According to the school, it all depends on how the children are feeling and what they want to discuss in light of the pandemic. “It was a huge learning experience for many of our faculty,” Teramae says. “It taught us to learn how to pivot and be nimble enough as a school, to shift from the lesson that we wanted to cover but to talk about what the children wanted to discuss with compassion and empathy.”
Back to School Tips for Parents
• Keep talking to teachers.
• Keep lines of communication open with the school faculty. For busy teachers, email is often the best way to communicate as phone calls and Zoom calls are challenging to schedule.
• Communicate with your keiki. Maintain an open line of communication to hear how they are doing and feeling. “With the mask protocols, I’ve noticed there’s this sense of distance for our kids—when you have a mask on, you don’t feel like talking as much,” says Whitney Aragaki, biology teacher at Waiākea High School. Keep asking your kids how they are feeling and listen to what they have to say. And if you’re concerned, be their first advocate.
• Teach flexibility. As you prepare for the fall semester, continue reminding your children to be flexible. Remind them that a global pandemic isn’t something parents or teachers can control, and the fall season may bring about changes that they may not have expected.
• Be understanding. Teachers are wearing many hats. “Please remember that teachers and schools are doing the best that they can to ensure the safety of their students,” Aragaki says.
• Prioritize mental health. Be sure to keep an eye out for the children’s mental health by watching for drastic changes in behavior or attitudes. A big indicator would be if the child is unable to handle things that they used to. Trust your instincts. If you’re concerned, reach out to your pediatrician.