Big Island Coronavirus Updates

DOE Will Ask Education Board to Delay Start of School for Nearly 2 Weeks

July 27, 2020, 9:10 PM HST
* Updated July 27, 9:23 PM
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Hilo High School. File photo by Dave Smith.

The Hawai‘i Department of Education will ask the state Board of Education to delay the start of in-person instruction at public schools this fall semester until Aug. 17, 2020.

HIDOE reached an accord with leaders of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, Hawai‘i Government Employees Association, and United Public Workers on Monday to recommend the BOE make the adjustment, The decision came after members of all three unions, led by the HSTA, voiced concerns that policies and personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to make school environments safe would not be in place/available by the originally planned start date of Aug. 4.

“No one wants students back in class more than teachers, but we want to be sure that we’ve been properly trained and supplied to protect against the coronavirus — and we want to fully prepare to conduct virtual learning and serve our students both in-person and online,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee wrote in a letter emailed to members of his union Monday night.

He went on to thank thousands of teachers for providing testimony to the BOE during a special meeting last Thursday, July 23, nearly all of whom supported a delay until a more clear set of reopening guidelines could be established to assuage safety concerns.

One such testifier is Christine Olivera, a speech-language pathologist at Konawaena Elementary and Kealakehe Intermediate. Olivera said Monday she believes it’s a good idea for the department and the BOE to pump the brakes on pushing people back into the classroom before they’re prepared.

“Some of these restrictions we’re going to be looking at with masks and social distancing — everyone is going to need practice doing that,” she said. “Teachers need to get classes in order and get trained both online and in-person. I think at this point the schools are even trying to decide what models they’re going to use.”

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The BOE made no decision last Thursday on what was then a request by only the unions to delay school openings. Instead, members decided to schedule another special meeting for Thursday, July 30, at 1 p.m. to further discuss possible changes to the school calendar. Now, HIDOE is onboard with the unions’ position.

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Olivera said she will testify as a part of that meeting with a number of questions she believes will remain valid regardless of when campuses reopen to in-person instruction.

A few of them are as follows:

-What happens to me if I don’t feel safe at school?

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-Our ability to work virtually online at home will be rescinded (Tuesday, July 28). This forces me to go to the school building to participate in virtual meetings or conduct online therapy sessions, defeating the purpose of eliminating crowding at schools. Will we have the option to work virtually from home or not? And if yes, when?

-If 11,600 teachers in our state need one mask per school day, or 20 masks per month, then the stated supply of 250,000 masks from (the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, or HIEMA) will last approximately 21 days. The DOE said this would be supplemented by an unspecified number of donations. Is this correct? 

Olivera said she’s been informed that Gov. David Ige has not yet released HIEMA funds for PPE purchases at schools, which begs further questions, along with a host of inquiries she says have yet to be answered regarding COVID-19 testing policies.

According to the joint letter sent from the relevant employee unions to their members Monday night, HIDOE will provide more details to its updated plan as early as Tuesday. However, no changes can be made unless approved by the BOE.

The department’s move to back the unions on this issue is a reversal from its earlier position, which held that appropriate guidelines were in place to ensure the safety of everyone on public school campuses, with pertinent guidance on exactly how crisis situations would be handled in the event that a school, or schools, needed to shut down due to an outbreak of COVID-19 and transition to distance-learning-only models.

Superintendent Dr. Chirstina Kishimoto released a statement Monday explaining why she chose to support the unions’ position.

“HIDOE leadership has been working with the unions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure our students get the education they deserve and our employees have a safe work environment,” Kishimoto said.

“Throughout our discussions, we were mindful that any adjustments to the calendar must focus on educating and supporting students. We also acknowledge the voice of our families, partners, and employees who are not represented by the unions yet are impacted by this decision. We will use this time to prepare at yet another level, but I recognize this comes at a cost for public school parents and our students.”

HIDOE’s 10-month employees are still slated to return to work this Wednesday. However, Monday’s agreement, if approved, would give educators nine additional days of training and preparation time on top of the regularly scheduled two administration days and two teacher preparation days between July 29 and Aug. 3.

HSTA said that extra time would be important, allowing for training, planning, and preparation for the safe return of students to classrooms.

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