(BIVN) – One day after top Hawaiʻi officials announced they were moving forward with the reopening of public schools on August 4, the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association held a news conference of their own, asking for a delay.
COVID-19 related safety concerns were expressed by HSTA officials and members, speaking on a Tuesday video conference that was livestreamed to social media. The educators raised questions about “a lack of proper procedures, insufficient time for pandemic training, a backlog of personal protective equipment (PPE) that has yet to arrive at schools and more,” the union stated.
The HSTA also said that Lieutenant Governor Josh Green has raised concerns about the planned reopening, and “cast doubt on the concept of ‘ohana bubbles’ in schools, which are impractical and more of a public relations slogan rather than a safe public health practice,” the teachers association said.
The news conference was held just days before a Thursday Board of Education meeting that has the DOE’s comprehensive plan for reopening schools on the agenda.
The BOE Chair Catherine Payne appeared alongside Governor David Ige, State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park, and Hawai‘i State Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto on Monday in support of the August 4 reopening. “The importance of our students’ mental health cannot be lost in this conversation. The Department’s distance learning survey findings made clear that parents have had great concern about their children’s social emotional well-being during these extended school closures,” stated Payne. “School closures have caused major disruptions to learning and development, exacerbating pre-existing issues of access and equity.”
The HSTA, however, says there are too many unanswered questions. With teachers scheduled to report to campuses on July 29, the HSTA says it “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.
The HSTA is imploring the state of Hawaiʻi and the Board of Education to delay the opening of school buildings to students, saying that more time is needed “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 HSTA wrote in a news release that the Department of Education has not kept its promises, saying:
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.
HSTA says it is seeking answers to these 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?
HSTA also has concerns about the supply chain for personal protective equipment, or PPE. “Our principals are doing a great job in ordering it, but it’s not coming, it’s not arriving,” reported Osa Tui Jr., HSTA’s vice president and registrar at McKinley High. “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.”
The HSTA news release also quoted Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, who reportedly cast doubt on State claims that students will be able to remain in “ohana bubbles” that will serve to minimize the potential spread of the disease.
“Bubbles burst. I’m concerned,” Green said in the HSTA news release. “Young children can’t adhere to social distancing or staying in a bubble and teens will socialize and be difficult to manage.”
“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,” said Rosenlee. “This is a process we cannot afford to rush.”