Teachers in Hilo, Kona Protest Lack of Voice in DOE Policies
More than 40 Big Island educators gathered outside the State Office Building in Hilo on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 24 for an informational picket to raise awareness of what they say are unsafe and inappropriate conditions for teachers at Hawai´i schools.
Like the demonstration by its Kohala Chapter more than a week ago, as well as one scheduled for Kailua-Kona Tuesday, the Hawai´i State Teachers Association’s (HSTA) goal in Hilo was to gain a voice in the decision making process surrounding the threat of COVID-19 and the policies associated with it dictating safety and educational practices at Hawai´i public schools.
“I would say that we’re still not really being heard, which is the whole reason we’re doing these pickets,” said HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. “The union doesn’t want schools to shut down, we want schools to have flexibility to figure out what will work for their communities.”
Tui said the primary issues HSTA would like to see collectively bargained are access to quick and inexpensive testing for students and faculty alike, standardized quarantine policies that offer transparency, and safety measures that coincide with recommendations in other public contexts — such as gathering restrictions that limit group sizes to no more than 10 individuals indoors.
Teachers Raise Testing Concerns
For educators yet to be vaccinated, Tui said, access to testing is critical to their ability to maintain employment. In several geographical areas, particularly on neighbor islands, that means access to COVID tests during non-work hours are of “extreme importance.”
The Hawai´i State Department of Education (DOE) is in the process of rolling out expanded testing that will create sites on various public school campuses across the state, some of which are currently operational.
“The Department is … partnering with the Department of Health to coordinate school-based COVID-19 testing for eligible students and staff, at no cost, through federally funded programs,” Nanea Kalani, communication specialist with the DOE, wrote in an email to Big Island Now (BIN) Friday. “So far 165 schools have registered for training to be eligible to participate in the Operation Expanded Testing program. Sixty-seven of those schools are actively testing through OET as of this week.”
“These sites do not require medical professionals. OET is using PCR tests that are administered by school staff,” Kalani continued. “Testing is a simple process. Samples collected on nasal swabs are sent to a mainland lab.”
HSTA officials cited three problems, as they see them, with the department’s OET program.
“The testing they’re setting up here requires three days for a result,” Tui explained. “They have to go back to the mainland. By time the result is back, the damage has been done.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that 24-hour turnaround times for school testing are ideal for identifying new infections and stemming further spread of the virus.
Union officials have also contended that testing at some schools is infrequent. At a few locations, they said it has been conducted on a “one-time basis.”
Finally, teachers or other school personnel will frequently be asked to create systems for testing, then man the sites at many participating institutions.
Aaron Kubo, a social studies instructor at Hilo Intermediate School and Hawai´i Director of the National Education Association (NEA), said that is asking a lot of educators who are already navigating the added rigors of teaching during a pandemic.
“We’re all back in class and COVID is still damaging our community, worse now than it was when we shut down,” Kubo said. “But there’s so much more uncertainty … and levels of stress in classroom.”
HSTA Laments ‘Lack of Transparency’ in Quarantine Protocol
Next to testing, Tui and Kubo each said they had specific problems with the DOE’s quarantine policies for students found, or suspected, to be ill with coronavirus.
“Teachers feel left out of the picture when it comes to close contact identification,” Tui said. “We have whole classes that have to be quarantined, other times one student might quarantine. Teachers are left in the dark.”
Kubo echoed his comments.
“There are five kids out here, or three out there — for 5, 7 or 10 days,” Kubo added. “We don’t know why or for how long they’ll be out. When they come back, they’ve missed so much and we have to catch them up.”
Instructors at multiple Big Island institutions confirmed to BIN on background that they are being asked to provide their administrations with information about potential close classroom contacts to those students known, or suspected, to have coronavirus. At several schools, the criteria for a close contact is any student or faculty member who was within 3 feet of the potentially ill individual for a period of 15 minutes or longer.
While HSTA desires flexibility throughout the district to meet the individual needs of unique institutions, the leadership is also calling for standard definitions to outline precise responses to outbreaks, quarantines and potential virus clusters — what will be done, how it will be done and when it will be done — to ensure the greatest measure of uniform safety. Tui said that won’t happen until teachers have a seat at the table and a voice equal to the administration.
He added that teachers have been “scolded” by administrators and members of the State Board of Education (BOE) for overly cautious decision making when it comes to quarantine.
“They’re being told to quarantine as few people as they can,” Tui said. “That is very disconcerting.”
The DOE, however, defended its policies and decision making by pointing to guidelines created by the State Department of Health (DOH) before classes resumed this summer, and which have been implemented uniformly since they began.
“Schools are doing everything within their control to diligently implement the core essential strategies set by the Department of Health: Promoting vaccinations for staff and eligible students, staying home when sick, consistent and correct masking, and proper hand hygiene,” Kalani said.
“When applied consistently and in combination for a layered approach, the mitigation strategies have proven to be effective at quickly identifying cases and preventing further spread.”
As of Friday, the DOE has reported more than 3,000 cases of the virus in students or staff members at Hawai´i public schools since the 2021-22 year began in August. The department adds the caveat in its weekly reports that much of that transmission takes place between students/faculty and their family members at home, which would indicate that the DOE’s COVID policies are achieving their intention of limiting the risk of viral spread in the actual classroom.
The HSTA disagreed.
“Things are kind of set up so they don’t identify transmission in schools,” Tui said. “It’s lipstick on a pig.”
Teachers Assert Double Standard Between Schools, Other Indoor Settings
After the outbreak of the Delta variant saw infections, hospitalizations and now deaths rise swiftly across the Hawaiian Islands, Governor Ige returned to gathering restrictions that limited groups to 10 individuals or fewer at indoor settings such as bars, restaurants, gyms and other venues deemed to be high-risk.
The HSTA said many classrooms across the state have upward of 30 students, adding that teachers don’t feel truly safe learning environments can be created with so many people in close quarters. That belief holds even despite mandatory social distancing requirements of 3 feet within classrooms and the sometimes hard-to-enforce mask mandates the DOE has set in place.
“What if we catch COVID and bring it home to our loved ones in multi-generational homes?” Kubo said.
Statistics suggest that Kubo’s concerns may be shared, or have been shared, by enough educators throughout the state to impact the ranks of educators upon with the DOE relies.
There are nearly 2,200 public and charter school teachers on Hawai´i Island. Statewide, there are about 13,500 teachers, according to HSTA figures. Hawai´i typically faced around 1,000 teacher vacancies annually before the coronavirus, a problem exacerbated by the mere existence of the pandemic over the better part of the last two years.
However, union officials blamed a recent rash of teacher retirements, along with what they described as a lack of adequate substitute personnel, on the inherent risk posed by DOE’s policies — policies that were largely crafted and implemented without official negotiations with the HSTA or widespread union support.
At a COVID-19 briefing to members the Hawai´i State Senate, DOE Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi presented a table of data showing that teacher retirements increased 49% year-over-year, from a total of 287 retirements in 2019-20 to a total of 427 retirements in 2020–21.
The total number of teachers departing the department for any reason — including taking other jobs, moving away from Hawai´i, retirement, or otherwise — increased 16% over the same one-year period, according to figures provided by HSTA.
“Subs want desperately to come back, but they’re afraid,” Tui said. “They won’t come back because things aren’t safe.”
The DOE disputed union claims in this regard, noting an active substitute teaching roster numbering in the thousands.
“We do not have a shortage of substitute teachers ,” Kalani said. “According to our Office of Talent Management, we have a pool of nearly 3,200 active substitute teachers available to teach in schools. Overall, this is sufficient for our current needs.”
“For example, this week (Sept. 20 to Sept. 24, 2021) there was an average of roughly 1,200 substitutes requested each day statewide for various reasons, which is a little more than a third of the overall sub pool,” she continued.