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DOE, Teachers Union Clash Over Return to In-Person Learning Exclusively

By Max Dible
August 3, 2021, 6:30 AM HST
* Updated August 3, 8:43 AM
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Governor David Ige and the State Department of Education continue to push the notion that their “Back to School Safely” program will create a healthy environment for teachers and students to return to full in-person learning at public schools across the Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawai´i State Teachers Association strongly disagrees.

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Ige held a press conference Monday afternoon, during which he outlined the four layers to the DOE’s plan. They are as follows:

  • Vaccinations: Promoting COVID-19 vaccinations among all faculty, staff and eligible students 12 years of age and older.
  • Stay Home When Sick: Faculty, staff and students are urged to stay home when sick. The Delta variant is highly transmissible, and everyone must work to break the chain of transmission.
  • Mask Up Indoors: Schools will ensure that there is correct and consistent masking indoors.
  • Hand Hygiene: Good hand hygiene will be emphasized in schools. Faculty, staff and students will be strongly encouraged to wash their hands with soap and water often, or at least to use hand sanitizer.

“In-person learning is, for most students, critical for academic and social success, and overall well-being,” the governor said. “We also know that it will take the entire community in order to make in-person learning safe for the 165,000 students and their families, and safe for the 13,000 teachers and other staff, at the 257 public schools all across the state.”

Dr. Elizabeth Char, director of the Hawai´i Department of Health, said that a bump in coronavirus tallies will occur no matter when the state decides to send its students back to school, as bringing 180,000 people together on various campuses will render spread of the virus inevitable.

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“We feel at this point the benefits … to kids being back in school far exceed the risk,” Char said.

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Osa Tui Jr., president of HSTA, took issue with the arguments made by Char and Ige Monday, pointing out that Hawai´i is currently dealing with its worst COVID-19 surge since the pandemic began almost a year and a half ago. Triple-digit case counts have been identified statewide for the last two weeks and counting, with a couple of days over the weekend setting all-time highs by surpassing 400 identified infections in a 24-hour reporting period.

“We were disappointed to hear today that parent concerns and educator concerns were not taken into consideration, as the DOE plunges head first into their plans,” Tui said. “Just saying that schools are safe places does not make it so. With 25% of new cases being children, that is extremely worrisome. Our students under 12 have no way to vaccinate themselves, but we’re willing to send them to schools on buses and on playgrounds while this extremely contagious strain of COVID (the Delta variant) spreads.”

Keith Hayashi, interim superintendent of the DOE, stressed that all schools are strictly adhering to safety protocols and uniform mitigation strategies set in place.

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“In-person learning contributes to the overall well-being of our students,” said Hayashi, noting social and emotional support resources, food security through meal programs, and extra-curricular activities. “Right now, the state is open for business with no other industry shut down. Our schools are ready to open as well and, again, we’ve shown we can do this safely.”

There is little tangible evidence the DOE can protect students or teachers, as most have yet to step back into the classroom with one another. Though, conversely, that also means there is little evidence that the DOE can’t protect them — a reality that is likely to render the first month or so of classes a battle for public perception over just how safe a return to in-person learning actually is.

Tui countered Hayashi by saying that while schools will be mandated to adhere to current safety protocols, many of the safety measures from last year no longer exist, such as mandatory implementation of certain levels of social distancing and the installation of shields between students while eating in close cafeteria quarters. He contended that does not make sense considering the rising case counts and a more transmissible variant of COVID-19 driving new infections across the state.

Konawaena High School. Courtesy photo.

Tui claimed there have already been reports from HSTA members of the DOE mishandling large group gatherings with regards to mask mandates. And Hayashi said himself at Monday’s press conference that the DOE and DOH have not yet established standard safety protocol for school-affiliated sports activities, despite practices beginning for several students in a matter of days.

While Tui pointed out that the DOE’s message of safety and some of its health protocols, or lack thereof, appear incongruous, the HSTA is not without its own inconsistencies.

When asked Monday, Tui said that approximately 80% of Hawai´i’s 13,500 teachers are vaccinated. He remained hesitant, however, to commit his union to a paradigm like the one Governor Ige is considering, which would introduce a mandate requiring all teachers be vaccinated before entering a classroom.

Tui said he was unsure if a vaccination mandate, like the one many healthcare providers across the state announced Monday that they will be implementing for employees, made sense for teachers if students and/or other employees of the department were not also mandated to get the shots.

“We are definitely exploring mandating vaccinations for employees all across the state,” Ige said, noting that his administration is watching and learning as the federal government implements a vaccination requirement for all of its employees nationwide. “We are in the process of exploring that option for state and county workers, as well.”

Whether that vaccination mandate comes down, or when, the governor said bluntly Monday that he does not expect Hawai´i will ever go back to 100% distance learning.

“I don’t believe there’s a hard and fast number or cutoff at this point that would be a trigger to just completely shut everything down,” said Char, addressing a question about what might revert the DOE to distance learning options. “I don’t envision us coming up with a specific number only because there are so many factors.”

Middle schools and high schools will be setting up vaccination clinics to encourage getting the shots. Schools will also have CO2 monitors to indicate to teachers when the levels are getting high and fresh air circulation measures need to be implemented to lower the risk of coronavirus transmission.

“The department has taken inventory on PPE (personal protective equipment) and other equipment that we need to keep students safe, and we do have an ample supply,” Hayashi said.

Here, again, Tui contradicted the interim superintendent, saying that some teachers have already complained about a lack of PPE and being forced to pay for it out-of-pocket, despite DOE claims.

The official student instructional school year in Hawai´i begins tomorrow — Tuesday, Aug. 3.

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.
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