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New school year renews optimism for families and DOE staff, but some concerns remain

FILE - Hand sanitizer is attached to a desk in a classroom at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaiʻi on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
FILE - Hand sanitizer is attached to a desk in a classroom at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaiʻi on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)

The last two years have had their highs and lows for Monica Huh, a mother of two students at Mililani Mauka Elementary School. Her daughter will be entering the third grade this year, and her son the second.

Like many families, Huh says the end of the 2020 school year was challenging.

"Just getting both of my children to understand that we weren't sure how long this is going to be, but let's make it fun," she said. "At times, it wasn't fun. Sometimes the internet didn't work. So I think that was challenging for us to figure out."

Huh says another challenge for her family was the inability to plan during the pandemic.

"I feel most sad for my son because that was going to be his first year of school in the public school system," she said. "So he really has been growing up in the pandemic. From preschool wearing masks, jump into kindergarten, not on campus straight into online."

However, Huh's daughter thrived in remote learning. She tells HPR it helped her become confident and come out of her shell more in the classroom.

This time last year, the Delta variant surge increased COVID cases around the state. Despite the COVID numbers, the state Department of Education committed to bringing students back into the classrooms after ending the 2019-2020 school year virtually.

Public schools implemented safety protocols at the start of the 2020-21 school year with procedures such as special drop-off and check-in in the mornings, and mask requirements for students and staff.

The last school year saw an evolving COVID landscape. The Delta variant surge subsided in the fall but gave way to the Omicron variant in the winter — stalling reopening plans.

Justin Barfield's daughter graduated from Kalani High School last year. He recalls the uncertainty surrounding his daughter's graduation ceremony, and whether or not family could attend the ceremony.

"We saw Omicron came around Christmas time, and that blew up. And we couldn't predict what was happening," Barfield said. "So it was understandable that the school and the DOE, they were trying to do their best to forecast, as well. And I think that the circumstances, I would say they did reasonably well."

Barfield also has a son entering the fourth grade at Aliʻiolani Elementary this year. He tells HPR he believes Aliʻiolani did well handling the last school year. But he recalls how difficult the last two years have been for him as a parent.

"One of the things about the pandemic, in general, as a parent is, it forces you to constantly make judgment calls — where there's not always a guaranteed easy answer," he said. "That's exactly what the DOE and teachers — they're trying to make these tough calls. And there's no real playbook or right or wrong answer, and everyone has different perspectives on what's right or wrong."

But this school year will look more like the pre-pandemic norm.

Starting Monday, masks will be optional at schools, and close contacts of a positive case will no longer be required to quarantine. The DOE — under health department guidance — cites the high levels of community immunity, and the widespread availability of vaccines and tests as reasons for the change.

At Waiʻanae High School, 10th grade counselor Nikki Kiliona tells HPR that she and her coworkers are excited for the new year.

"Some of these was distance learning for the last two, three years," Kiliona tells HPR. "That's why we're so excited for this school year, because now it's in-person. [The high school] don't have a distance learning program."

Waiʻanae High School
Casey Harlow
Waiʻanae High School

Kiliona says she is looking forward to events such as football games, homecoming, prom and graduation returning to in-person. Over the last two years, school events have either been canceled or changed.

However, there are concerns.

Kiliona says COVID-19 greatly impacted the Waiʻanae community, whether it be financially, or emotionally due to a family member dying from the virus. She says those experiences may have a lasting impact on students.

"For sure, academic concerns, social/emotional concerns is always our thing," said Kiliona. "Behavior, I think more kids are going to be on campus, so we're just going to be more diligent and more mindful. We're putting a lot of our practices back into place."

Despite the effects of the pandemic, Kiliona says Waiʻanae High School is prepared to help its students catch up and become prepared for the future.

"We know how to fill the gaps, fill the voids, address the concerns," Kiliona told HPR. "We're equipped, we have support."

For Huh, she's concerned about afterschool care for her children for the upcoming school year. Last year, both of her children were on the waitlist for her school's A+ program due to a limited amount of available seats.

"Both me and my husband work full-time. So it's going to be a struggle if come the first day of school, and we're like — 'Okay, you guys are still not in A+,'" she said.

As of Friday, Huh's children were still on the waitlist. Huh tells HPR she regularly checks to see if her children were accepted. But she and her husband are preparing to take time out of the work day to pick up their children after school, and work from home for the remainder of the day.

As for Barfield, he says he is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming school year. But he is looking forward to having in-person family events return.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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