No area of life in Hawaii is immune to the ravages of COVID-19 – not hospitals, hotels, restaurants or retail businesses. And certainly not the schools, which continue their struggles to reclaim in-person learning amid constant safety and immunization protocols, ongoing teacher shortages and declining enrollment.
It was this latter concern that took center stage last week, as the state’s Department of Education (DOE) released its numbers on declining enrollment, another significant drop for two. consecutive years. Statewide enrollments this year saw more than 3,000 fewer students compared to the start of last school year, a decline of 1.7%. Combined with the drop in enrollment from the previous year, it appears that Hawaii’s public schools have lost nearly 8,000 students since 2019-2020; COVID-19 closures began here in March 2020.
This year’s 171,600 students in public and charter schools is down from 174,704 at the same time last year; Excluding charter schools, DOE schools enrolled 159,503 this year, up from 162,491 last year.
This is a trend seen nationwide, as public schools saw a 3% drop in enrollment last year, largely due to the pandemic. Fears of the spread of the coronavirus have prompted families to leave traditional schooling for more flexible charter schools and home schooling. Data shows that the home schooling rate in Hawaii increased last school year from the previous year, from 4.5% to 8.1%.
The fate of those 8,000 or so keiki who are no longer in the public school system is of immediate concern. The best hope is that they have indeed migrated to non-traditional or innovative educational environments; guardians of homeschooled children should remember that a form must be sent to the state along with annual progress reports. But the fear is that too many unenrolled young people have simply dropped out of school, without much support and skills to prepare them for adulthood.
The pandemic has shown how vital public schools are for many families. On many practical levels, schools are centers of stability that come with routine, counseling, and two square meals – and in some cases, are safe havens in the midst of dysfunctional or even abusive family life. .
It should be a point of pride that Hawaii’s DOE didn’t falter when it came to feeding the keiki who needed extra help during the difficult times of the pandemic. Thanks to a nationwide waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), all students in Hawaii’s 257 public schools can receive free breakfasts and lunches daily throughout the 2021 school year -2022. Free meals were also distributed in the summer.
As for schools, registrations count. The numbers have an impact on the funding that the DOE as a whole, and schools individually, receive per student as part of the state’s complex budget process. The crucial Weighted Student Formula (WSF) is based on the number of enrollments, with each student’s needs “weighted” to estimate the cost of their education. In the 2020-2021 projections, for example, each student’s WSF started at around $ 4,500 – and depending on their circumstances, conditions like poverty, English as a second language, or being gifted. / talented are further “weighted” to seek more funding for resources, affecting the overall budget of each school.
Certainly, ensuring safe and quality learning environments for students and faculty has been challenging, as the DOE rightly remains committed to face-to-face classes, after a difficult 2020-21 year of primarily distance learning.
So far, the multi-layered approach of DOE protocols appears to keep campuses relatively safe from COVID-19 outbreaks. As required by the new state law, a more detailed disclosure of cases is published (see bit.ly/hidoe-covid-updates). As of July 1, a total of 2,154 cases have been reported, out of 200,000 students and employees. For the most part, cases have been attributed to transmissions from outside the schools.
Strict campus protocols must continue, including grouping, distancing, hand hygiene, better ventilation and, of course, masking. Fortunately, Hawaii hasn’t seen the kind of silly anti-masking attitudes in schools that have occurred in mainland areas such as central Texas, where schools have temporarily closed after the deaths of two teachers.
Another big step towards safety has been mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for faculty and staff, or weekly testing at employee expense. Vaccination clinics on campus are also expected to continue for eligible employees and older students and their families. Indeed, the value of vaccinations is an important lesson that can be shared on our school campuses.