The Hawaii Board of Education approved pushing back the date students start the new school year to Aug. 17 during a virtual special meeting Thursday.
Students were originally supposed to start the 2020-21 school year on Tuesday. But a strong push by unions led by the Hawaii State Teachers Association demanded more online training for teachers and more robust health and safety guidelines before 179,000 public school students go back to class.
The DOE reached a conditional agreement with HSTA, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents principals and education assistants, and United Public Workers, which includes school custodians, last weekend to postpone the start of the school year.
Teachers reported to work as scheduled on Wednesday.
“Nine instructional days in the school year should not be taken lightly,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said at Thursday’s meeting, adding the deal with the unions was reached through “consensus building” and was what the department and unions could agree to.
“I find myself in a really, really, really difficult situation, because I am concerned about that two-week gap. It’s been a 4.5-month gap and we’re adding two weeks to it,” she said.
The board voted 7-1 to approve the agreement. Bruce Voss, a business litigator and former news reporter, was the sole dissenting vote, saying the delay was “just a very bad deal for students,” particularly vulnerable ones.
“I think we should reject this schedule and that instruction should start next Tuesday, via distance learning, and each school decide when it’s ready to transition (to in-person instruction),” he said. “Some schools may be ready by next week.”
The DOE’s 257 schools are responsible for choosing an instructional model, whether that is face-to-face instruction, distance learning or a hybrid, by far the most popular choice.
Teachers, school administrators and union leaders have not been the only ones calling for a delay to the school year. Parents have also flooded the board with letters and phone-in testimony, expressing concern over rising COVID-19 case counts in the state and that it’s not safe yet for their children to return to campus.
Some parents are also concerned that their schools have not articulated a complete distance learning plan, including how to address special education, pre-K and English language learner needs.
Thursday’s meeting came on a day Hawaii reported another record-high number of COVID-19 cases, at 124. Minors under 18 accounted for one-fourth of those cases, according to the state Department of Health.
Hawaii’s case count for July alone — 1,083 — has surpassed the total of 937 for the prior four months combined.
“Today, I just want to ask all of us to take a step back and look at the big picture. We are seeing a dramatic spike in COVID in Hawaii,” said Burke Burnett, a scientist at Bishop Museum and parent of a Kaimuki Middle schooler.
“The current (DOE) reopening plan is reckless,” Burnett said. “It will make people sick. Some of them will die. It is that simple and we all know this.”
Brooke Nasser, a teacher, testified that teachers and staff are being put in “a precarious position” amid a health situation the “state has not gotten control of.”
“Recent statements seem to pit teachers against parents and suggest educators are not doing the best job to look out for the interest of our students,” she said.
While Nasser said she, too, prefers in-person instruction, “there are costs.”
“What happens if students and staff become ill or someone dies?” she asked.
To stem the spread of the coronavirus, DOE schools switched to all distance learning in mid-March for the fourth quarter of the last school year. Had it started the new school year as scheduled on Tuesday, Hawaii’s single school district would have been among the first of the largest school systems in the U.S. to start school.
While data is still not available on how susceptible children are to contracting and spreading the virus, recent research suggests “infected children have at least as much of the coronavirus in their noses and throats as infected adults,” according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics reported by The New York Times.
About 8,400 students in Hawaii returned to campuses this summer in some form for summer learning programs. As of June 26, there were six reported positive COVID-19 cases involving either a student, employee or service provider through these programs, according to Lindsay Chambers, DOE communications director.
Five of the cases stemmed from Oahu and one on Kauai, with no further details offered.
Chambers said the DOH is the lead agency when it comes to publicly reporting positive cases.
The modified school calendar this year means students will see a reduction in instructional days from 180 to 171, although the superintendent said the DOE plans to negotiate with HSTA to possibly regain three instructional days.
It’s not clear if the end of the school year could be pushed back.
As for the additional professional development time before students return, Kishimoto said teachers will receive hour-long training through seven distance-learning modules.
Substitute teachers will also receive distance training and get a full day’s pay for those who complete all seven modules, she said, addressing rising questions over how substitutes, long relied upon by DOE to plug a perpetual teacher vacancy, are being accounted for in the new school year.
Board member Kenneth Uemura, a certified public accountant, initially wanted the board to consider an amended motion that would push the start of the school year to Aug. 17 or later, or “no later than August 30 or before September 1” to give the board flexibility in case the COVID-19 situation in the state takes a turn for the worse.
“Rather than be locked into nine days, we need to hear exactly what the plan is and how long it will take to get us a safe and healthy school environment,” he said.
But Uemura’s proposal was shot down on legal grounds.
What was still left unresolved in the special board meeting was whether DOE would receive detailed, written guidance from DOH on safety protocols.
HSTA, in joint written testimony with HGEA and UPW, said school leaders deserve clear guidance on things like check-in protocols, health screenings, use of face coverings, accessing and using PPE and contingency plans for shutting down campuses in case positive cases are reported.
The unions also said there needs to be more contingency planning, including if a large number of staff decide to “retire, resign, take leave or utilize (medical leave).”
“We are still trying to see, once school starts, how many teachers because of their own school models have to take care of their own kids and be potentially on leave as well,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said during a Zoom call with reporters earlier this week.
“There are a lot of questions we won’t know until school starts.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.