Meryl Matsumura often starts her workday in the dark, at 6 a.m., and doesn’t head home until the hot Waipahu sun retreats after 5. In the long hours in between, the interim principal of Waipahu High School is responsible for keeping 2,800 teenagers safe and on task.

The past two years have been a wild ride. Most teachers and students are relieved to be back in person this year, she says, but fallout from the mass experiment with online learning and a shaky reentry to the classroom still lingers.

“Coming back on campus in fall felt like we had two freshman classes. Half the campus was completely new,” says Matsumura. Normal start-of-school jitters were worse than usual: Social skills had frayed after 16 months mostly spent at home.

“The isolation impacted everyone,” says Maverick Yasuda, a junior who is on track to earn an associate degree through the school’s Early College program, which was launched more than a decade ago. “You lose motivation, you overthink things.”

While Yasuda is a serious student and does well even if school is on a screen, many of his peers have foundered. “There are a lot of struggling students – it’s not a small group anymore,” says Matsumura. “Online is not the greatest way to teach.”

Classrooms have remained open since August, though a late summer Covid surge threw reopening plans into disarray. Once it subsided, students slowly settled into routines and “started making gains reconditioning themselves to the grind,” says English and drama teacher Thelma Madriaga. That progress was disrupted when infections peaked again after Christmas break.

HawaiiKidsCAN launched a pilot program on Lāna‘i that gave families money via ClassWallet to buy supplies or tutoring, and has sponsored a bill (still alive in March) to expand the program statewide. Executive Director David Sun-Miyashiro says “there’s definitely something in the air now to get funds into the hands of families because there are just so many needs.”

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