Given the numerous unanswered questions and teachers scheduled to report to campuses on July 29, the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) has no confidence that our school buildings and classrooms are ready for students to open in a manner that minimizes the risk of COVID-19 spreading.
“Our schools are woefully underprepared to deliver a distance learning program should a school be shut down by the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) due to the spread of COVID-19,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee.
Therefore, HSTA implores the state of Hawaii and the Board of Education to delay the opening of school buildings to students. The HIDOE and DOH need more time to properly create and implement health strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and schools need more time to prepare educators for an online environment.
The coronavirus has created an ever-changing situation within our communities, and significant stress and fear for our students, parents and guardians, as well as all school staff. While the HSTA believes in the importance of ensuring students are provided instructional services in school year 2020–21, it should not be at the cost of a safe educational environment.
Department promises not kept
Nearly one month ago, HSTA reached an agreement on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) about schools reopening. Yet the HIDOE has still not fulfilled their side of the agreement.
We have repeatedly asked for important details, such as written guidance from the state Department of Health (DOH) on the reopening of school buildings. The state even agreed in contract language that such guidance would be provided before schools reopen, yet it has not been provided. Testimony before lawmakers and news conferences do not equate to comprehensive written and endorsed guidance from the DOH. Health Director Bruce Anderson told lawmakers last Thursday Gov. David Ige asked him “just today” to convene a panel of experts to determine the trigger points for opening and closing schools. It’s unclear whether that has happened with just over a week before educators are supposed to report back to their schools.
Secondly, the superintendent claims that teachers have received training throughout the summer. That statement is misleading. A small fraction of teachers participated in voluntary professional development regarding virtual learning over the summer. Yet many teachers have told us they were unable to participate or not even aware that training took place.
The HIDOE also claims students will have access to a 100-percent distance learning option. To date, nothing has been published by the HIDOE on how this option would be accessed or utilized by families. Some initial reports from school principals redirected families to E-School as the official platform 6-12 grade students could use. This guidance is simply not true. E-School is only a supplementary program and not designed or approved to replace the curriculum provided at a student’s home school. The department has provided no guidance for K-5 students’ access to 100-percent distance learning options.
“We are two weeks away from school buildings reopening to students, yet critical questions remain unanswered. Educators are still confused and unclear on the necessary measures and steps needed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in our schools,” Rosenlee said.
While the HSTA has continued to work in good faith with the state, HIDOE, and public charter schools throughout the summer, we continue to ask the following questions:
- When will the State of Hawaii’s Department of Health provide written guidance on the reopening of school buildings, which the HIDOE agreed to in our MOU?
- What options are available to families seeking 100-percent distance learning options for their children? And will classroom teachers have to provide that 100-percent distance learning instruction in addition to the model they’re currently expected to teach?
- What are the clear protocols for requesting and receiving approvals for an exception to wearing face coverings at schools? HSTA believes everyone must be required to wear face coverings at schools, especially within six feet of each other.
- What happens to the students and adults on a school campus if a student, teacher, other school employee, and or one of their household members test positive for COVID-19?
- What standard practices and additional personal protective equipment (PPE) methods should be followed by employees who need to get within six feet of others, especially students who are medically fragile and/or very young?
- How will schools determine that newly enrolled students, especially those from military households, followed 14 days of proper self-isolation upon arrival in Hawaii?
- When a school needs to shut down due to a COVID-19 infection, how will schools move to a 100-percent distance learning environment, and when will teachers be trained?
Teachers will be most at risk when schools reopen. They will be in close contact with dozens, and potentially hundreds, of children for multiple hours in a given day. Yet they seem to be more of an afterthought in the health director’s overall concern for health and safety. In testimony before lawmakers last week, Anderson admitted, “The disease is far more serious for older people. That doesn’t necessarily help the teachers, of course, or the faculty who are worried. But for the kids themselves, the risk is relatively low for serious disease.”
During a news conference Tuesday, Osa Tui Jr., HSTA’s vice president and registrar at McKinley High, revealed a scary reality about personal protective devices, known as PPE.
“Our principals are doing a great job in ordering it, but it’s not coming, it’s not arriving,” Tui said. “There’s a backlog of people ordering throughout the whole country, throughout the whole world. They’re not getting it. So they need time to even receive these PPE to be able to distribute it to their faculties and staff.”
Shannon Kaaa, a special education preschool teacher at Fern Elementary, told reporters, “The principals have done their best to comply with DOE directives as they come down. But our schools are not prepared to open. Our teachers are not prepared.”
“As a teacher of preschool children with special needs, I, like many other special education teachers, am especially concerned about the lack of guidance we have received to safely care for our students with special needs. We need guidance, we need time to develop protocols and procedures and we need time to collaborate and share plans with the other people who work with the students,” Kaaa added.
Brandon Cha, who teaches science at Pearl City High, said, “We want schools to open, but we want them to open safely.”
Teachers are given four days of student-free prep time, from July 29 through Aug. 3, he said, before students are scheduled to return Aug. 4 and people might say “that could be used to learn and train about three procedures.”
Two of those days are already taken up with training and meetings held by the principals in a non-pandemic year, and educators use the other two days to set up their rooms, plan their lessons and curricula for the coming semester, etc., Cha said.
“That’s what we get in a typical year. This is a year of a pandemic. And what we’re dealing with and what teachers are being asked to modify for, not just for our ease of teaching, but for the safety of our students, is way more than what we can accomplish, safely, in four days,” Cha said.
“We need thorough prep time before students come back to our buildings to adequately plan for them and our safety,” Cha added.
LG Green raises concerns about students returning to class; doubts effectiveness of ‘ohana bubbles’
“We owe our teachers a comprehensive healthcare plan, in writing, before they open themselves up to added risk,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is an emergency room physician.
“I view our teachers now as first responders because they are out there with our keiki, caring for them and educating them, during a time where we’ve had significant numbers of Covid-19 cases. We have to make sure it’s safe to open schools and some of our teachers would be vulnerable without a comprehensive health plan. I think we should insist on that before we put anyone into harm’s way,” Green added.
Green also cast doubt on claims by state health and education officials that students will remain in so-called ohana bubbles, minimizing any potential spread of the disease.
“Bubbles burst. I’m concerned,” Green said. “Young children can’t adhere to social distancing or staying in a bubble and teens will socialize and be difficult to manage.”
Rosenlee, the HSTA president, said, “The health and safety of our keiki and the staff of our public schools must be paramount in any decision-making. We must take every precaution before students are brought back on campus. This is a process we cannot afford to rush.”