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Public Schools Continue Distance Learning, But Do Not Know How Many Children Are Missing Classes

Hawaii State Department of Education
Department of Education staff hand out grab-n-go meals for students at McKinley High School.

In-person classes at Hawaii’s public schools were canceled due to COVID-19, but some students are not checking in online, and the state hasn’t been able to accurately account for those who are missing.



About 180,000 public school students have been at home since taking spring break in mid-March. Instead of holding classes, educators have been teaching children through distance learning and using hardcopy worksheets that families can pick up.

However, the state Department of Education does not have information on how many students have been actually engaged in learning.

Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami explained that the department is still working on connecting with children at a distance.

“That is part of our discussion, how do we find the children who, in spite of our efforts, we're not comfortable that we have had as many touch points with them as we would like, to no touch points,” she said. 

“What are we going to do differently to ensure that we are thinking of various ways to make it possible to have access to the students and the students to have access to us?”

Principals have been largely left with the responsibility to reach out to families whose children have not responded to the schools.

Roosevelt High School principal Sean Wong said he has not been able to contact about 44 of his 1,400 students. 

He explained that this number isn’t unusual, but that it has been more difficult to reach these students because counselors are unable to have at-home check-in sessions.

“We had made multiple phone calls, emails, we have access to different family members and friends to try and at least get a hold of someone,” he said.

“As students get older, and they progress through their education, students become more independent, parents also tend to ween off a little more so they might not be as engaged compared to an elementary school student.”

Kaneohe Elementary School Principal, Derek Minakami has resorted to physically driving to unresponsive families’ homes.

“For the families that have been unresponsive, and it’s just a handful of them, we’ll do a home visit,” he said.

While Minakami has done home visits before, there is another layer of concern.

“We’re trying to minimize the amount of exposure, person-to-person contact, but we feel it’s really a priority to continue the education and make sure the children are doing okay as well, especially given how anxious some of them are feeling,” Minakami said.

However that doesn’t mean that all the other students principals have been able to contact, are engaged and learning because the department does not have that data.

The DOE has set up food pick-up sites to ensure that children have access to both breakfast and lunch on school days.

Unebasami explained that all school-aged children are given food and education packets if they ask for them. However, no one is making the students identify themselves.

“It is not about taking attendance. It is not about taking counts and saying are you a private school? Are you a homeschool or are you a public school? We are just saying if they are school age, then take care of them,” Unebasami said.

“Our emphasis has been about maximizing outreach into the community, rather than being accurate about who we are serving.”

She explained that the department is relying on school staff to identify students who may be struggling to get to a food pick-up site. Those reports influence where the department may send more resources.

After over a month since in-person classes ended, the DOE is just now looking at packing Roberts Hawaii buses with basic living supplies, education materials and food to drive to certain vulnerable areas.

Unesbasami said the buses may even be equipped with Wi-Fi. Other cities such as San Francisco and South Bend, Indiana, have similar plans to ensure students who do not have reliable internet access can at least occasionally get online. 


South Bend’s Wi-Fi bus program started in mid-March and San Francisco’s program started in mid-April.

We want to hear from teachers, principals and parents about their experiences with distance learning, send us an email at

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