After a nearly seven-hour marathon meeting Thursday, the Hawaii Board of Education put off a decision on whether schools should still reopen as planned on Aug. 4.

Chairwoman Catherine Payne said she’ll likely hold a special meeting to consider a board member’s proposal to push back students’ return to Aug. 18.

“We will be meeting again as soon as possible to address the major issues in the testimonies that were presented today,” Payne said after the meeting, adding the board understands teachers’ and staff concerns over a need for more training on health and distance learning issues.

Thousands of teachers, principals and other school employees have urged the board to delay reopening, saying there is a lack of adequate guidance on health and safety protocols from the Hawaii Department of Education and state Department of Health.

Social distanced classroom with desks spaced apart at Kaneohe Elementary School summer school during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Kaneohe Elementary School set its summer school classroom up to be socially distanced. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Public opinion on reopening school campuses by Aug. 4 has shifted dramatically in recent days.

On Tuesday, the Hawaii State Teachers Association urged DOE to delay the return of students to DOE’s 257 school campuses indefinitely.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the union representing DOE principals and education assistants, and the United Public Workers union joined HSTA in calling for a delay.

HGEA executive director Randy Perreira said sufficient personal protective equipment remained an issue.

“Administrators, teachers and support staff are stepping up and making their voices of concern heard,” he said in virtual testimony to the education board Thursday.

Indeed, the outpouring of testimony from principals across the state was notable, especially because it is a group that largely shies away from making its opinions heard on controversial matters.

“Due to the lack of timeliness and continuous changing of the guidance, it has impacted our ability to successfully plan for the opening of the school year,” a letter signed by multiple Farrington complex principals said.

The letter, echoed by principals elsewhere in the state, pointed to a number of concerns in addition to health and safety. They cited low-income students’ ability to access digital devices and get connected for distance learning; the lack of mobile hotspots for low-income families; and the question of how students would access school meals when their schools are not providing on-campus instruction.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto reiterated her commitment to open school campuses by Aug. 4 in a short video message released earlier this week.

“I can assure you, all schools are outfitted for reopening,” she said on the video. “All schools have what they need to reopen safely.”

But judging from the 4,000 pages of testimony submitted to the Board of Education this week, many disagree.

“I believe the board should recognize and acknowledge the concerns.” — BOE member Dwight Takeno

The board spent two hours hearing from teachers and principals who were concerned because some live in households with inter-generational family members and immune-compromised relatives. And they said there is no clear guidance on a contingency plan should a student or staff member be stricken with the coronavirus.

“There are no perfect choices in this situation, but there are safer choices,” said Pearl City High science teacher Brandon Cha.

Board member Dwight Takeno introduced a proposal that the DOE push back the date students return to campus to Aug. 18 and that the first two weeks of the school year be all-distance learning.

“I believe the board should recognize and acknowledge the concerns … that guidance remains unresolved and unanswered,” he said.

Board member Bruce Voss, echoing a concern Payne had made earlier this week in a press conference with the governor, said he felt delaying that return would “arbitrarily kick the can down the road,” and harm high-needs, special education and English learner students who benefit from face to face instruction.

The board’s meeting occurred on a day Hawaii reported the single-highest total of new coronavirus cases — 55 — since the DOH first began tracking cases late February. A 26th death, an elderly woman on Oahu, was reported.

In a Thursday press conference, DOH Director Bruce Anderson said a continued rise in virus cases could impact schools reopening.

“We don’t have specific numbers we can use as triggers but if we continue to see a trend of more cases certainly this will be a major concern in opening schools,” he said.

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