Hawaii’s Remote Learning Blunder: A One-Time Mistake or a Reflection of Systemic Education Deficiencies?

Camryn Fujita (SCR ‘21)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified Hawaii’s age-old issues with economic inequality and the state’s heavy reliance on the tourism industry. The pandemic has shown no mercy in disrupting plans for the fall and winter months, and as the United States trudged through months of quarantine, economic hardship, and spikes in case levels, many awaited to see how the pandemic might impact the almost 51 million children attending American public schools. 

As August arrived in Hawaii, education officials were pressed with balancing public health imperatives, while also ensuring adequate in-person support for vulnerable and special education students and choosing an acceptable distance-learning program. Tense debates between education officials and teachers over the health risks of sending the 174,704 public school students in Hawaii back to in-person classes, resulted in a two week delay to the start of the academic year. Eventually, the Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) announced that the first four weeks of school would be online. They eventually extended online learning through the end of the first quarter in October. In September, the Department of Health released guidance for schools, which included that full in-person learning should not resume until cases drop to 0-5 per 100,000 residents. Currently, the state predicts that students will likely not return to the classroom in person or in hybrid form until next January at the earliest. 

Even before the pandemic, Hawaii public schools have struggled to keep up with their mainland counterparts. In 2017, the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism found that education expenditures made up 27.3% of combined state and local government expenditures, which ranks lowest in the nation. Furthermore, Hawaii lags behind mainland school districts of similar size in education spending at $12,855 per child when adjusted for cost of living. These statistics have supported a long-held perception that one can only receive a quality education in Hawaii at a private school. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 18% of Hawaii students are enrolled in private school, which is the highest rate of private school enrollment in the nation. As this figure already has unintended consequences on the support that public schools receive from voters and politicians, the pandemic has proven to be a major hurdle for Hawaii’s public school system when they are already struggling to support students and close the wide technology gap.

Almost as soon as the semester began on August 17, HIDOE saw mounting complaints from parents over their approval of the online learning platform, the Acellus Learning Accelerator. Critics cited age-inappropriate, simplistic, racist, and sexist content. One particularly egregious video lesson aimed at first graders, shows an instructor pulling a gun out of a box to demonstrate the phonics of the letter G. “Ooh it’s a gun!” she exclaims. Another lesson asked students, “Osama Bin Laden was the leader of what terrorist group?” One of the multiple-choice answers was “Towelban.” Another misspells and mispronounces the name of the last sovereign monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuʻokalani, and claims that the Hawaiian Islands were “discovered by Europeans.” Even more troubling are the credentials of the creator of the Acellus Learning System. Roger Billings is a self proclaimed “science and technology innovator” who received his PhD from a non-accredited, for-profit science academy he founded in the 1980s called the Institute of Science and Technology. 

After these disturbing allegations surfaced, journalists found that during the summer, Acellus was reviewed by state education curriculum specialists and received poor marks. Some described lessons as “very simple” and “very, very questionable,” yet the program somehow was still authorized as the predominant distance learning tool used by nearly two-thirds of Hawaii public schools. Following the initial outrage, several schools immediately removed Acellus. However, others continued to defend it, since Acellus had been used previously as a summer credit recovery program and had never received complaints. As a result some parents who had opted for Acellus in the beginning of the school year, were left without alternative options and were unable to rejoin regular, remote classes. After a final comprehensive report on Acellus, the Board of Education voted on October 15 to phase out the program in all schools by the end of the year. 

As the state moves on from this shocking blunder, many are unsurprised that something like this could have happened during the pandemic. Although the HIDOE Communications Director did not disclose exactly how much the 2020-2021 school year Acellus student licenses cost, a DOE memo from this past spring showed that 9,040 student licenses were purchased at a discounted rate of only $25 per license. It is probable that Acellus was approved without proper vetting due to financial reasons and the “plug-and-play” infrastructure needed for a quick transition to online learning. This semester has also been particularly frustrating for Hawaii’s teachers. One local public school teacher, Eric Stinton, expressed his anger at the hypocrisy of this situation: 

“This is not a one-off blunder. It’s a symptom of a dysfunctional institution that outsources its decisions in any direction it can . . . There’s something smug and audacious about this situation. I expect my students to do their work and put in honest research, and the DOE no doubt expects the same from me. Those expectations don’t seem to apply to the DOE decision-makers, though, which is convenient since they don’t have to live with the consequences of their decisions.”

HIDOE has 15 complex area superintendents and a 9 member leadership board, with experienced careers in education and government. Stinton points out that HIDOE superintendents make three-times the salary of teachers. However, the botched decision to approve Acellus happened under this leadership, and in spite of the existing education bureaucracy and established procedures for approving and reviewing learning programs. If in-person learning is not a reality for the spring semester, it is uncertain what online learning program will replace Acellus, and more importantly what lasting effects this semester will have on student engagement and development.

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