Teachers Union Says School Openings Should be Delayed

July 21, 2020, 5:58 PM HST (Updated July 21, 2020, 5:58 PM)
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Konawaena Elementary School. PC: Konawaena Elementary School Website

Hawai‘i public schools will reopen classroom doors on Aug. 4, but the Hawai‘i State Teacher’s Association (HSTA) says that’s not enough time to make schools safe for the return of its members or their students.

During a virtual press conference on Tuesday, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the teachers union has asked the Hawai‘i Department of Education (HIDOE) for answers on several pressing questions but has not received adequate responses. Because of that, the union is asking HIDOE to delay the start of the fall semester indefinitely.

“HSTA has no confidence that schools are safe to open,” Rosenlee said. “Our schools need more time (to create a safe environment). What is the rush?”

At a press conference Monday, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Board of Education Chairperson Katherine Payne said it is imperative to get kids back to in-person and/or hybrid learning as soon as possible because the return of tourism may necessitate distance learning-only implementation.

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Based on the current plans of Governor David Ige’s administration, a pre-travel testing program may begin exempting certain tourists from quarantine as early as Sept. 1.

The urgency, Payne continued, is to create connections between teachers and students to minimize the negative impact distance learning has on education if the department is forced to return to it, which was evident in the last 46 days of the spring semester when the COVID-19 pandemic closed school doors statewide.

“If we have to go into distance learning again, it’s going to be really important for teachers and students to know each other,” Payne told reporters. “We are going to lose a lot more children to deficient educational services (if they don’t develop relationships quickly).”

She went on to say that the BOE believes it is safe to return to classroom instruction in August, under the protection of Hawai‘i Department of Health (DOH) guidelines, as Hawai‘i’s coronavirus metrics have consistently been the best in the country. Since testing began in late February, the Big Island has reported 114 cases of COVID-19 and zero virus-related deaths.

PC: Pixabay 2019

Teachers on Tuesday argued, however, that the reason the state’s numbers are so low is that prohibitive measures have been largely observed by its population across all islands.

They added that HIDOE’s murky, non-uniform policies on the wearing of face coverings, for instance, and the impossibility of confining student interactions to ‘ohana and education bubbles fly in the face of restrictions most Hawai‘i residents have followed in social interactions across the last several months.

Rosenlee said the idea that there’s any way to regulate the wearing of face coverings among children of any age, particularly the very young, is “divorced from reality.”

“This educational bubble is a pseudo bubble. It does not exist,” said Sonya Porschér, a second-grade teacher at Konawaena Elementary who has spent years teaching in the US and internationally. “There is no way to protect a child from point A to point B.”

A rock and a hard place

Weighing public health against public education also brings to light an unavoidable conflict.

“Fear and uncertainty are forcing teachers and parents to come to conflict,” said Brandon Cha, a science teacher in Hawai‘i. “They’re asking us to pick our health or the kids’ education. We want schools to open, but we want to do it safely.”

Those desires become competing desires when placed under the two-week time crunch between now and the start of the school year.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. PC: HSTA

Teachers are concerned about their own safety, while teachers and parents alike worry about the safety of children in crowded school settings during the middle of a pandemic. However, many parents also rely on schooling as a form of educational daycare, as they have jobs to perform in order to provide for their families.

No solution to that problem is perfect, meaning the best solution is a matter of perspective.

“That’s a challenging decision for parents who need school as childcare. That’s the dual sword all parents are fighting,” Porschér said. “Do I go back to work and have my children monitor themselves on a Chromebook, or do I sacrifice money we need?”

“At the end of the day, if your child is sick and you can’t afford the hospital bill, you’re in a worse boat,” she continued. “You have (to stay home) to take care of a child who is sick and could die, or who could spread (COVID-19) to another family member. Either way, we’re in a sinking boat, but I’d rather be in the boat where I have an option.”

Based on a survey conducted by HIDOE, parents overwhelmingly favored sending their children back to school for either in-person instruction or a hybrid learning model, which would have them on campus some days and distance learning on others.

Only 16% of parents said they favored distance learning entirely, and Kishimoto said the department has procured 23,000 learning devices and established an ‘ohana health desk to provide parents those options.

Rosenlee questioned the veracity of the Superintendent’s statement, saying no guidance has yet been provided for students K-5 to receive distance learning-only options. He said many parents have told him in their specific districts, educators have said there will be no such options.

Cha said written guidelines have yet to be produced on virus-level trigger points determining when schools would open or close. Rosenlee contended no guidelines exist for standard protocol on how classrooms, schools, or districts would close and transition to distance learning entirely should that prove necessary.

state department of education logo_image from Hawaii Department of Education

DOE image.

State officials on Monday referenced HIDOE’s Health & Safety Handbook, saying much of what teachers and parents want to know about guidelines and protocols are, in fact, written and can be accessed online.

Porschér contended Tuesday, however, that whatever is or isn’t available, there’s simply too much information for teachers to sift through. She echoed comments made by HSTA representatives in their press conference when they bemoaned the fact that teachers will only have four days before classes begin to receive professional training on handling the virus and distance learning, which will involve technology some of them are completely unfamiliar with.

The first two weeks of classes will be half-days, however, to allow for more teacher training, HIDOE has said.

“Teachers get four days of student-free prep time, but that’s what we get in a typical year,” Cha said. “This is the year of a pandemic.”

“We’re one of the first school districts in the nation to bring students back,” he continued. “I’ve had no training offered to me, and any training we’d be offered would be optional at best. Some teachers are working second jobs. Training is not widespread for all teachers.”

Another issue is the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). Along with social distancing requirements of 3 to 6 feet whenever possible, HIDOE has said PPE will be supplied to teachers, or they will be reimbursed for what they purchase on their own, to protect themselves in close quarters and clean frequently used surfaces.

Principals across districts are ordering PPE but backlogs make its arrival in Hawai‘i by early August precarious at best, said HSTA Vice President Osa Tui. Beyond that, extracurriculars like sports will resume on Aug. 19 under the current plan, during which Tui said social distancing will be impossible to enforce.

Coming action?

What the HSTA will do should they remain unsatisfied with HIDOE’s plans remains to be seen.

“We want to see what the Board of Education does Thursday,” Rosenlee said, referencing a meeting scheduled for later this week. “We will have to look at different options.”

Some new teachers are coming into Hawai‘i public schools with no training. Some substitute teachers are older. Rosenlee said he’s not sure how many teachers will even be available for the first day of school, a disconcerting possibility in a state where teacher shortages have caused serious drawbacks for years. Possible teacher pay cuts due to budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic have also been discussed.

“Some teachers are looking at sick leave, some are looking at retirement,” Tui said. “If they can’t retire, they’re writing their wills … because they’re deathly afraid.”

Porschér said she doesn’t feel as though HIDOE is listening to her voice, adding she’s spoken to several other educators who feel the same.

She added that talks have been circulating about putting together protests so the public-at-large is aware of how teachers feel and the unsafe situation they believe they’re being forced into by leaders at the top of the department and state government.

“It’s not to shut down the schools, it’s an acknowledgment we’ve not been heard through the process at all,” Porschér said.

However, if straits become dire, Porschér said the state can’t rule out teachers coming together to make a stronger statement.

“If we all banded together to say we need more time, that may work,” she said. “Teachers are suing in places on the mainland. Taking that type of stance from educators (may prove necessary) to show there needs to be more consideration.”

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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