Dozens of teachers protested school reopening plans at the Hawaii Board of Education’s meeting Thursday. The teachers say the school reopening framework is lax and unsafe at a time Hawaii is seeing record daily highs of new coronavirus cases.

Among the concerns that drew nearly 3,000 pages of written testimony in recent days is a plan to let students sit 3 feet apart when they return to the classroom next month.

A memorandum of understanding between the Hawaii State Teachers Association and DOE reached two weeks ago says “schools and worksites shall work to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread” by “maintaining six feet or two arms’ length (whichever is longer) of separation between and among students and staff members in meeting spaces, hallways, and exterior school grounds whenever possible.”

But last week, when the DOE unveiled a school reopening plan that indicated 3 feet between desks facing the same way was acceptable, and that a face mask was not required in the classroom, HSTA president Corey Rosenlee shot it down as “ludicrous” and “dangerous.”

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school classroom during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
A classroom that reopens in the fall will likely hold more students than a summer school classroom as seen here at Kaneohe Elementary last month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

He called upon the state’s 13,700 teachers to “inundate” the education board ahead of its meeting Thursday with testimony to mandate the 6-feet rule. The meeting ended up lasting more than four hours.

Some board members were clearly uncomfortable with the outpouring of testimony, grilling school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto on the conflicting guidance from DOE and the MOU on appropriate spacing between students.

“It was my understanding, 6 feet whenever possible — that 6 feet would be the norm, and anything other than that would be the exception rather than the rule,” board member Kaimana Barcarse said during the meeting.

Kishimoto said the DOE was relying on a state Department of Health “sign off” that “3 to 6 feet is still possible under health and safety conditions with the right modifications.”

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks during board meeting.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Indeed, in a DOH webinar for school principals and administrators hosted by state epidemiologist Sarah Park last week, Park — a pediatrician — directly addressed the spacing confusion, saying less than 6 feet was OK as long as they’re “all facing the same direction and in their seats.”

“It’s a controlled setting. They’re faced all in the same direction and in that instance, we felt we could be comfortable with 3 feet of distance,” she told the participants. “If they’re facing each other, then we’re talking about 6 feet of distance.”

Guidance at all levels is mixed. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics — which made an official statement this week urging students to be physically present in school as much as possible — diverge on what is appropriate.

CDC recommends desks be spaced 6 feet apart while AAP said 3 feet is OK if a greater distance is not possible.

In written testimony to the board, the Hawaii chapter of AAP underscored that its parent organization favors reopening of schools due to the “health and social risks to keeping children at home.”

But the organization recommended masks be worn especially for older children.

Kishimoto acknowledged Thursday that the spacing issue needs clarification and “more conversation outside of this board meeting.”

“We know we’re going to turn away a lot of families from that in-person opportunity as we reopen schools,” she said. “This is one of those things that if there are two different ways we are looking at that item, we need to meet again.”

The board on Thursday deferred approval of the MOU between DOE and HSTA, saying the two groups need to hash out a better understanding of what is safe and expected.

In a statement afterward, HSTA’s Rosenlee said the deferral “doesn’t stop the memorandum of understanding which is already in effect” and that HSTA is “still committed to protect the health and safety of our keiki and educators by maintaining six feet of social distancing and ensuring face coverings as both parties agreed to.”

Schools Announce Reopen Models

The board’s discussion of the DOE’s school reopen framework took place a day after all 257 DOE schools decided which instructional model they’ll use for the 2020-21 school year, which officially starts Aug. 4.

Many schools are opting for a blended instructional model, in which alternating groups of students switch between virtual and in-person learning to minimize the number of people on campus on any given day.

Kaneohe Elementary School cafeteria summer school students keep their hands from touching anything during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Many DOE schools have chosen to go with a blended model of in-person and virtual instruction for the 2020-21 school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Some schools, especially those at the elementary level, have opted for a full in-person instructional model, meaning all students will be at school full-time during the week.

One of those schools is Manoa Elementary, a K-5 school with about 500 students and 32 teachers, whose strong academic reputation draws 20% of the student body from outside the geographic district of the school.

The DOE has advised that in-person instruction be prioritized for lower grade levels, such as PreK-2, and also high-needs students.

In a July 8 letter posted to the school website, Manoa Elementary Principal Ryan Kusuda wrote that “with the cooperation of our amazing teachers, we will be able to open up our school year with all students on campus, every day, during normal school hours,” with “significant modifications to school procedures” to account for health and safety concerns.

A survey circulated among DOE parents received 32,000 responses, Kishimoto added at Thursday’s meeting, with 84% expressing a preference for in-person instruction over distance learning.

She remarked on the parents’ concerns of social and emotional issues after having their kids out of school for so long.

“While we are making these difficult decisions around how many kids we can educate every day in person, we have had kids out of school since March 16, when they went on spring break,” she said.

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