The Hawaii State Teachers Association on Tuesday filed a complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board against the state Department of Education and Gov. David Ige, claiming that a directive ordering public school teachers to return to school after spring break violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

DOE teachers have been ordered to return to school on Monday, while students have been instructed not to return to school until March 30. All 179,000 public school students are currently on spring break, which began Monday.

On Sunday, Ige announced that the DOE’s spring break — originally scheduled from March 16 until March 20 — would be extended by one week to account for concerns over the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

DOE officials were clear that extension did not apply to the state’s 13,700 teachers and other instructional staff — saying they must report back to school on March 23 and were to use that extra one-week period, without students present, to prepare a plan for social distancing within the school setting, arrange for professional development for “modified operations” and “thoroughly clean schools.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee at DOE presser announcing pay increases for special needs and Hawaiian language teachers.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee wants DOE officials to shut schools for the next several weeks, at a minimum. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The teachers union had been opposed to that directive from the start. On Sunday evening, HSTA officials requested a meeting with DOE officials, raising concerns that the announcement constituted a violation of the agreement currently in effect and initiating an informal grievance process.

The state DOE told HSTA it planned to “continue with the schedule for next week for teachers and admin to come together” on March 23, according to Tuesday’s complaint with HLRB.

But as of Tuesday, “respondent DOE notified the HSTA that it would no longer require teachers to report to their respective schools on 3/23/2020 but still required teachers to report to their schools on 3/30/2020,” according to the complaint.

It’s not clear if the DOE plans to have teachers report back to school on March 30, as with the rest of the students, or remain committed to the March 23 date.

DOE officials did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.

But DOE’s guidance regarding schools amid the fast-moving coronavirus scare is prompting unconventional action by HSTA.

The last time it filed a prohibited practice complaint with the HLRB was in 2011, when then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie imposed a contract the union did not agree to, according to HSTA spokesman Keoki Kerr.

In this case, the HSTA contends the DOE and Ige are violating two provisions of the contract: that teachers “shall not be required to work under unsafe or hazardous conditions or to perform tasks which immediately endanger their health or safety” and that when “students are sent home from school or are not required to attend due to emergencies which endanger health or safety, teachers will not be required to remain at, nor report to, said schools.”

Corey Rosenlee, president of the HSTA and a teacher at Campbell High, said in a statement he believes social distancing in the school setting won’t work.

“I have heard from kindergarten teachers who have shared that trying to stop kindergarteners from touching their noses and then wanting to give you a hug is impossible,” he said.

The HSTA’s complaint came just hours after Ige, in a mid-day press conference, said all non-essential state employees must work from home — except DOE employees.

“At this time, this means that all HIDOE employees are required to report to work as normal unless they feel sick, have been instructed by a health care provider to self-isolate or self-quarantine at home, or made alternative arrangements with their supervisor,” the DOE said in a statement issued shortly after.

Ige’s suggestions regarding social distancing was being criticized by some DOE teachers on social media Tuesday, including his suggestion that recess be staggered — it already is — and that kids eat lunch in their classrooms, or that students who exhibit symptoms stay home from school.

He also suggested it’s important that “should a child appear at school who has a fever or is sick, that we can separate the child from other kids.”

“We believe this is not enough,” Rosenlee said in a statement. “The potential for exposure has already occurred.”

Hawaii now has 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including cases on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

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