In April of 2020, the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy published a widely read essay in the Financial Times. COVID-19, she argued, was not merely a force of tremendous disruption and human tragedy. It was also “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” While many of us long for a return to normal, Roy argued that we should instead recognize the magnitude of change and strive to think imaginatively and creatively in response to it.
At Punahou, the pandemic has certainly led us to face the future in innovative and unprecedented ways. As our community has encountered the restrictions and precautions required to maintain public health and safety, we have emerged with responses that combine careful reflection of our values with a determination to put them into practice in a new, radically altered environment. While born of necessity, some of our approaches may also serve us well for years to come.
This is particularly clear when it comes to our most important community events and milestones. When public health conditions made it impossible for us to hold our annual Holoku Pageant’s celebration of Hawaiian dance, music and culture on successive days in a packed gymnasium, our staff produced a video that featured students proudly dancing hula in their own backyards, living rooms and kitchens. Interviews conveyed their devotion, growth and personal depth in ways that our typical ceremony never could, and the event was enjoyed not merely by hundreds gathered on our campus, but by thousands of parents, alumni and friends throughout the world.
When our traditional Commencement could not be held at the cavernous Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawai‘i, we brought families to our own campus for an intimate experience, in which parents were only footsteps away from their children as they received their diplomas. Here too, a digital production gave our Commencement, including song and dance, global reach.
As we prepare for February’s Carnival, our Junior Class student leaders are also working to rewrite the playbook. Instead of mourning the fact that the pandemic will make our usual rides and midway impossible, they are moving ahead with perennial food favorites and kids’ games, while planning new drive-in shows, featuring live entertainment and opportunities for Punahou to reach beyond its walls through days of community service on O‘ahu and by alumni around the world.
Our teaching and learning have evolved as well. When the pandemic forced us to seek smaller student cohorts in the Academy, our administration and faculty responded by creating an entirely new schedule that included daily intensive two-hour “block” classes alongside traditional semester-long offerings. That step, designed to reduce the risk of viral transmission, has yielded fascinating pedagogical results, as many students have discovered that in some subjects, they learn better in a more immersive environment. While Punahou remains committed to the advantages of an in-person, face-to-face teaching model, we have also developed outstanding distance learning capabilities, which may enable us to offer selected summer session courses to students across the United States and around the world. More widely, our faculty’s growing facility with digital learning platforms has enabled our dedicated and inspiring teachers to discover tools that they can use to facilitate student projects, collaboration and creativity long after the immediate threat of the pandemic recedes. Those technologies may also lead us to deeper collaboration and partnership with public schools in Hawai‘i, as well, for enduring mutual benefits.
Finally, the pandemic’s impact has challenged us to think clearly and deeply about our commitments to our students and their families. The United States, many economists have argued, is now witnessing a “K-shaped recovery” characterized by accelerating inequality. While some sectors of our population have emerged relatively unscathed, others have suffered major declines. That is especially the case in Hawai‘i, where industries connected to tourism, travel, entertainment and food services have endured deep downturns that may last for another few years, even as others connected to technology, finance and investments have continued to thrive.
As of this writing, Hawai‘i’s unemployment rate remains the highest in the nation, having leapt from 2.7% in October 2019, to 14.3% in October of 2020. Faced with that challenge, we decided to do everything we could to retain all our currently enrolled and newly admitted students. Supported by Punahou’s many visionary and generous donors, we expanded our financial aid this year from approximately $8 million to $10.5 million, an increase of more than 30%. Preserving access to a Punahou education was an essential part of our commitment to remaining “need-blind” in admissions. It also reflects our strong belief that a diverse learning environment, in which we grow through engagement with multiple perspectives and experiences, is a better one for every student who attends our School.
The full measure of the pandemic’s impact remains unknown, and while news of vaccines is encouraging, we still don’t have a clear idea of how long it will last or what its human toll will be. Even amid uncertainty, however, Punahou’s amazing team continues to learn, grow and innovate. That combination of creativity and drive allowed us to return to our beautiful campus last fall, and I am confident that it will enable us to pursue the opportunities of an exciting future to come.
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