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Public School Wraps Up First Week of School to Mixed Reactions

Sarah Mililanta Laffin
Sarah Mililanta Laffin, an eighth grade STEM teacher at Ilima Intermediate teaching classes in-person.

Teachers and students across the state concluded their first week of school Friday. Some attended class in-person and others started the year online with distance learning. That decision was largely left up to individual principals.

Sarah Milianta-Laffin, an eighth grade STEM teacher at Ilima Intermediate pulled into her school parking lot at 7:20 a.m. on Monday to start the 2020-2021 academic year.

“The parking lot’s already pretty packed,” she said. 

“Teachers like me, we didn't get much sleep last night as we kind of are excited for this day to start.”

Earlier, as she was driving, a parent texted her saying they wouldn’t be comfortable sending their child to class in-person after all.

“That student will be joining virtually, and that's fine,” she said.

 “That gives me a little comfort of less kids in-person in my classroom. But also, I want the families to make decisions that work for them and I'm glad they were able to do that.”

The state department of education decided students would do full distance learning for the first month of school because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. However, some schools opted to do the first week in-person to teach students how to access their classes virtually.

Milianta-Laffin’s school had optional in-person learning. She says she felt like her school did a good job disinfecting the campus and created clear frames teachers could use to shield themselves while working with students.

“It's lunchtime in the Ilima courtyard, students are getting their lunch and then they can eat outside or in the cafeteria, as long as they're keeping that six feet distance,” she said. 

“For middle schoolers, we have to remind them a few times to make sure they're in line correctly, but it's working really well. They're listening and everybody is getting back to the school routine.”

Meanwhile, Moanalua High School notified parents Sunday night that they were abandoning plans to return to in-person classes Monday morning.

Instead students started school at a distance.

My younger brother Kody Kikuno is a senior this year at Moanalua High School. I sat in on one of his favorite classes, band. It was held virtually on google classroom.

Instead of the normal back to school morning hustle, he rolled out of bed, walked five feet to his desk and plopped down on his chair to start school virtually.

By now, he said it’s just part of the daily routine.

He’s been at home since March when schools didn’t return from Spring Break.

“There's just been a huge gap in my life, for the past months that I haven't been to school. At first it felt really cool because you know, obviously there's no school so it's like, whooo! But after a while, the break just kind of felt too long,” he said.

“I'm kind of bummed that this is how we have to end to four years of high school. I would really want it to go differently, but can't really do anything about it. I'm just kind of here, just sitting around, just waiting, for everything just to go back.”

He listed the milestones he missed over the past six months, band concerts, orchestra concerts, sports tournaments and prom.

But most of all, he missed his favorite part of school-- marching band. They would have been rehearsing all summer if not for COVID-19. 

Kikuno explained that the school is still trying to decide whether to postpone the season or to cancel it entirely.

“It really helped me to make a new family in a sense, and a lot of new friends that I probably would have not met . . . That was the one thing that I felt I really committed myself to for the four years of high school. I was also really looking forward to it because this is my last year. And I really want to go out with a bang.”

He explained that distance learning efforts from his teachers varied at the end of last year--some met virtually with students multiple times a week and others not at all. This time it was more consistent. 

He said it’s been difficult to focus on school through distance learning.

“It’s just overall responsibility and staying on track. In school, it's really easy to just get in that mindset of, I need to be here, I need to study and I need to do my work,” he said. 

“But when I'm at home, I get distracted very easily. I sit in that mode for a little bit, but then I'll be like, oh I need to go eat or I want to play video games or I see my friends online.”

However, he echoed the concerns of teachers like Milianta-Laffin, who wore a black shirt on the first day of school in solidarity with the teachers union-- which said there’s been a lack of leadership in planning the return to school.

The union has been unable to get written guidance from the state department of health on specific procedures if a student becomes sick or when a school should close.

Despite her concerns, Milianta-Laffin tried to stay optimistic about the school year.

“I think I speak for many teachers when I say, being an educator isn't just what I do, it's who I am and who we are. We're meant to be with our students face to face, but we also are able to onboard them, which is what we did to be readied for virtual learning,” she said.

“They have the tools, they have the knowledge, they know a little bit from last quarter of how it went. So we're ready to take this learning energy and learning environment online so that students can be safe and teachers can be safe.”

School will be held virtually through September 11th. But the department will announce by September 8th if students will continue distance learning through the entire first quarter.

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