The state Department of Education’s COVID-19 policies are riddled with inconsistencies, incomplete information and often outdated guidance, according to a critical report released Friday by the Hawaii State Auditor.
The report also calls out top DOE personnel, including the superintendent and deputy superintendent, for refusing to make themselves available for meetings or turn over the most current versions of policy documents to the auditor.
“Now is not the time to protect information. Now is the time for greater transparency and full and complete and timely information,” State Auditor Les Kondo said in an interview Friday.
The DOE report follows a similarly damning report on the state Department of Health’s contact tracing program, issued just days earlier, which details the agency’s refusal to provide access to top officials.
“It’s a bigger disappointment that more generally, the state is not providing timely and clear and accurate information,” Kondo said.
The Senate COVID-19 Special Committee asked the auditor on Aug. 13 to help provide clarity and transparency regarding the DOE’s COVID-19 processes.
Lawmakers specifically wanted to know the department’s plan for when a new case is reported on a school campus and for cleaning and disinfecting schools. They also wanted to know how the DOE will trace the close contacts of anyone infected with the coronavirus, and how families, staff and the public are notified when new infections are identified.
The department’s communication with lawmakers and the public regarding its COVID-19 policies is “unclear at best, and often inconsistent,” the report says.
Although public schools are doing distance learning until Oct. 2, some students have returned to the classroom — including those with special needs or without internet access at home.
For instance, the federal law that restricts the release of medical information does not apply to elementary or secondary schools, the report noted. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well, does not prohibit disclosure of information about infected students if it’s in “non-personally identifiable form” nor does it apply to teachers, staff or workers at the school, the report said.
School districts across the U.S. often cite federal privacy laws as blocks to revealing more detailed data about new coronavirus infections at schools, resulting in an uneven patchwork of disclosure around the country.
The report said the DOE needs to obtain legal guidance from the state Attorney General and — if no privacy prohibitions exist — must act quickly in releasing information about new coronavirus cases at a school.
That information should include the specific school where a new case arose, details about cleaning and disinfecting and also how many school personnel and students are quarantining, the report recommends.
The DOE reported 20 new school-associated virus cases in the past week. It did not release the names of the schools impacted.
The report also points out that content in three separate DOE manuals on COVID-19 feature outdated information, including scrapped guidance to space desks at least 3 feet apart — the current mandate is 6 feet — and lack new directions on where families can get help for computer issues.
The documents don’t say who is responsible for deep cleaning and sanitizing, how long a campus should stay shut and who in the school community is notified when a case is reported.
“The policies we reviewed are often inconsistent, appear outdated, and at times incomplete,” the report says. “It is questionable at best as to how effectively even these policies have been carried out to date.”
In a statement Friday, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto expressed frustration about the report and said the conclusions were inaccurate.
“It is extremely disappointing that the state auditor considered his report more important than the provision of direct educational services to students during a health pandemic,” she wrote.
“He has shown extreme impatience and inflexibility,” she added, saying the report “glaringly lacks interviews with my team.”
But the report makes clear that the auditor’s office had difficulty gaining access to education officials. It reached out multiple times, including Aug. 13, Aug. 14 and Aug. 18, when Kishimoto finally responded and said the request to meet or produce most up to date policy documents was “unreasonable,” given her upcoming appearances before the Senate committee and board of education.
Finally, it says a letter Kishimoto sent Wednesday, Aug. 26 providing names of point people in the DOE came “simply too late.”
Nevertheless, that Aug. 26 response from Kishimoto — which is attached in full to the end of the report — would not have changed the overall findings or conclusion of the report, the auditor said.
“Now is not the time to hold things close to the vest, now is not the time to hold information, now is not the time to circle the wagon,” Kondo said. “Now is the time for transparency. It’s important that data, information be made publicly available.”