No Classrooms? That’s Quite a Challenge

Teachers and staff at Hawai‘i’s private schools tell us how remote learning not only tested their abilities to adapt, but also redefined their ideas of community.


Zoom? Google Hangouts? You may now be all too familiar with these virtual meeting places. Kids are too. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, schools across the nation announced that students were to finish the school year remotely. Within a matter of weeks, schools were faced with the challenge of having to go completely virtual.


Video chatting apps served as the framework of online schooling for most institutions across the nation—and Hawai‘i’s private schools innovated and quickly adapted their approaches to virtual schooling. We talked to folks at different schools that vary in size, location and mission to see how they navigated the new normal and found success in uncertain times.

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Capturing Life With A New Curriculum: Mid-Pacific

A laptop, a volleyball, a box of Betty Crocker cake mix and Atticus’ The Dark Between Stars: Those are some of the items in Mid-Pacific senior Erin Goya’s quarantine survival kit. Her classmates know this well because they saw it all in her photographs.


Goya, like other high schoolers across Hawai‘i, had to finish her school year online after the school announced that students would not be returning from spring break. While the majority of her classes simply moved lessons from the classroom to the computer, her photography teacher created a project to focus on the quarantine experience.


At the time they started distance learning, the class was focusing on flat lay, a technique in which a subject is photographed from above, giving viewers the perspective that they are hovering over it. Normally, students are encouraged to photograph the world around them and have gone out to capture areas of the campus or its Mānoa neighborhood. This time, Mid-Pacific photography instructor and high school art teacher Alison Beste asked her students to create and take a picture of their own personal quarantine survival kits.


The assignment went beyond simply teaching a particular skill. During this uncertain time, Beste said she wanted students to focus on things that they could control. It was also an opportunity to bring them together, even as they were forced apart. “I was asking students to think about what’s helping you stay sane and healthy and happy, and then how might you articulate that through objects,” she says. “I wanted us to start thinking about, you know, what ultimately are you thinking and feeling?”


“Our Science Fair was scheduled for two weeks after distance learning began and we felt it was important to honor the hard work that our haumana invested, so we went virtual! We gave them extra time to finish their Hawaiian cultural-based science fair projects at home, transition them to a virtual format, then upload their presentations. I am so proud of our haumana!”
– Kalea Pahukula, Principal, Kamehameha Schools Maui Elementary

There were challenges. “Not all my students have cameras at home,” Beste says. Students were invited to shoot with an iPad or phone, whatever they had. “Luckily, everybody had some kind of device. [I asked them to] take a photograph even if it wasn’t that great of quality.”


While other students’ survival kits included things like coffee and iPhones, Goya didn’t limit hers to just objects. “I had my sister in the bottom right hand corner of the picture reading a book and that had a little bit of a deeper meaning,” she says. “My family was keeping me sane, but it also was saying how I really miss spending time with my friends, classmates and even my teachers.


“I never fully understood the significance of walking through the hallway and just being within close proximity of a lot of people.”


Students uploaded their photos to a website, where they were able to view and comment on  each other’s work. “There was a lot of dialogue that I think was helpful for students,” Beste says.


Mid-Pacific School of the Arts Director Kevin Doyle said it was uplifting to to see the class come together. “This is not a situation anybody would have wanted to be in. I think that was one of the things that was kind of inspiring just because it was letting the kids use how they actually currently feel to create art.”

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Reaching a Wider Audience: Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy

At the beginning of this school year, it was common to see Hawai‘i Preparatory seniors at the beach on the west side of Hawai‘i Island. They weren’t catching waves or the sun’s rays—these students were collecting samples of blood from Hawaiian green sea turtles as part of their Capstone Project partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


At the Big Island school, students in the fifth, eighth and 12th grades work on yearlong research team assignments they’ve chosen themselves. Themes cover various topics including biotechnology, Hawai‘i migrations, social entrepreneurship and cybertechnology.


HPA seniors Hikari Shaver and Ivanni Jamin studied climate change’s effect on turtle gender populations. This included taking samples for hormone analysis, a preliminary step in their research.

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Students from Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy participate in the Sea Turtle Research Program to gain hands-on experience catching, tagging and releasing turtles for scientific research.
photos: Courtesy of Mid-Pacific and Hawai’i Preparatory Academy


“We would go out and do the usual capture-and-release health checks, but in addition we would extract about 5 milliliters of blood from the jugular vein in the neck. We would then take this blood back to our school lab where we would centrifuge it to separate the plasma, before shipping them off to the NOAA lab on O‘ahu,” Jamin says.


Originally, the team was going to create a binder to showcase its progress and results. But when learning went online, the duo decided to present a virtual resource guide. Jamin and Shaver created a website that detailed their project and what they learned. Online, they found an even bigger audience.  NOAA researchers from other islands didn’t just watch the presentation, they decided to use the students’ work.


“Parker’s lower school art teacher created an exciting collaborative project called “Jackson the Chameleon Goes Into The Art Museum” as a way to unite and build connections through art while physically separated during distance learning. Each grade created its own book with each student researching, illustrating and writing a page. Each lower school grade focused on a different adventure as Jackson explored topics in art from color theory to famous artists. The six-book series was published, and copies were given to each classroom as a keepsake, plus made available to families to order.”
– Krista Anderson, Parker School

“As opposed to just stopping and giving up, they created these training manuals that NOAA researchers are now using,” says Aaron Schorn, the school’s Capstone Project coordinator. “[When] those NOAA researchers jumped on the Zoom call from their cell phones and said that, the air in the room totally changed. Everyone was excited that the mentor was becoming the mentee, essentially.”


The turtle project was not the only one students quickly adapted. “Some of the projects pivoted directly to COVID-19 solutions. One [of the agriculture groups] figured out how to create a system where farmers could, if they didn’t have restaurants to sell to, sell directly to consumers,” Schorn says.


One of the most challenging switches was for a group working on voyaging without navigational instruments. Before COVID-19, they were planning a trip on the on the Makali‘i. “Each student would have a role on that voyaging canoe and it went from the Big Island to Maui. It was all about preparation—it was about a student planning the food for the voyage, or being a visual storyteller for the voyage, another student writing the mele, or the music, for the voyage and that was taken away from them.”


When the voyage was canceled, they turned to Zoom.


“There were 91 people on that Zoom call presentation,” Schorn says. “At the end we had a live Q&A, where kūpuna and teachers and coaches and family members asked questions. There was so much human connectivity and so much emotion, there was so much knowledge shared back and forth. And that wouldn’t have happened if there was a physical event; we wouldn’t have been able to have so many people involved.”

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Teachers drop off supply packets to Le Jardin families across the island.
photo: le jardin academy


A Community at Home: Le Jardin Academy

While so many teachers and families had to switch to virtual mode, teachers of some of the youngest students at Le Jardin Academy found new ways to add personal touches to their teaching. Often, it meant getting off their computers and into their cars.


Chloe McDermott, a prekindergarten teacher at the lower school, was one of the staff members who did just that to prepare her students for the new model of learning. In one instance, she and a few other teachers drove a total of five hours around the island to drop off resource packets at every student’s house. In each packet, preschoolers found a mix of supplies and fun crafts to work on. “You can’t assume that every family has a set of watercolors and this and that, so we just kind of wanted to even that playing field,” McDermott says.


“We read a few short stories in our reading text and discussed the sequence of events. The students were then asked to create an obstacle course using sequencing of events … a warmup, six stations and a cool down. They needed to explain their obstacle course in writing, using words such as first, later, then and finally. The students also needed to share the materials they would be using, location and who would be participating. Students were then required to either take a video, PowerPoint or draw a diagram of their completed obstacle course. Many families said it got them outside and exercising.”
—LaiYin Ng, Darwin Nazarino and Thomas Grant, Teachers, Holy Family Catholic Academy and Early Learning Center

It wasn’t just good for the kids. McDermott says seeing them brought her joy. The drive was worth it.


“We made signs for the side of the car,” she says. “They hadn’t seen us since before quarantine. I don’t think they really understood what was happening. It was a nice way to reconnect and to just let the parents know we’re here, you know, we are together.”


The teachers continued what they called the learning-supply drives through the rest of the school year. McDermott also found a way to provide her preschoolers the same kinds of values they would normally learn on campus: teamwork, respect, kindness and collaboration. Normally, kids in her class were assigned classroom helper jobs. McDermott made some changes to the job chart. Line leader and door helper turned into dishwasher and sweeper as a way to make the at-home experience a little smoother for parents.

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Le Jardin lower school students listening to their teacher via Zoom.
photo: le jardin academy


“The first day of distance learning, my puppet, Mr. Bluebird, brought all these new jobs so they could be done at home,” she says. “The kids were really excited. You know, number one house chef was another one that they could do at home.”


Online conferences were not only for classes. During the last few weeks, the class had birthday and pajama parties on Zoom. Leah Magana, the school’s director of learning, says: “We remember the preschool teachers driving learning kits to children’s homes, staff delivering pizza to families on ‘pizza day,’ advisers playing collaborative games with teens to get them laughing, and high schoolers meeting with kindergarteners in need of a friend.”