On a day Hawaii notched a record number of COVID-19 cases — prompting the governor to warn of another stay-at-home order — the chief of public schools laced into the head of the state teachers union for threatening legal action against the agency over the expected in-person interaction between teachers and students when classes resume next week.

“What our keiki deserve is time to train and connect with their teachers to prepare before we shift to full distance learning for the next few weeks,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a lengthy written statement Thursday.

She accused Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee of “continuing to work against what is in the best interest of Hawaii’s children under the false pretense of ‘Schools Our Keiki Deserve,’” a jab at the union’s beloved slogan.

education, Corey Rosenlee, HSTA, DOE, school, lawsuit
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee held a press conference Thursday to announce pending legal action against the state to permit the return of students to campus next week. Screenshot/2020

“We will not allow Mr. Rosenlee to script out the work our principals need to do to lead, nor drive a wedge between our principals and their staff,” Kishimoto said. “Our students have physically been out of school since spring break. It’s time we all put the futures of our students first.”

The missive was issued shortly after HSTA said it would file a prohibited practice complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and a grievance on behalf of employees over alleged violations of a collective bargaining agreement with DOE to ensure proper health and safety measures for teachers during the pandemic.

HSTA had not provided the documents showing what action had officially been taken as of Thursday evening.

As the new school year starts Monday for Hawaii’s 179,000 public school kids, DOE guidance around who is allowed back on campus for in-person instruction, teacher introductions or training for online learning has been jumbled.

As a result, some of the DOE’s 257 schools are leaning on an all-virtual start, while some are having students come back to campus in staggered waves for brief face-to-face training sessions — or even instruction — with their teachers.

“The principal is calling it orientation,” said Jason Pavia, a teacher at Princess Victoria Kaiulani Elementary in downtown Honolulu.

He said he’s been instructed to meet with five students and their parents for a two-hour block Monday morning, followed by another five students and their parents in a two-hour block later that day, followed by another two sets on Tuesday.

The purpose, he said, is to train the student-parent groups in online platforms used for distance learning, like Google Classroom and Wonders for language arts.

“I’m very worried about having so many people in my room at once,” he said via email. “There are no set procedures on what would happen should I be sick or take leave.”

At the moment, there is no uniform way for how schools will be reopening next week across the state, as concerns mount over surging COVID-19 cases, mostly on Oahu. There were 355 new cases on Thursday alone as the death toll reached 40.

And some schools, according to HSTA, are counting on even longer face to face interactions with large groups of students, including at Moanalua High, where “500 students will show up each day next week, Monday through Thursday, to attend all seven periods and homeroom,” the union quoted a teacher in this Facebook thread.

And other examples exist statewide — including at Kauai’s Kapa’a Elementary, where the school website clearly shows a schedule of students coming back to campus in alternating groups for two weeks before the school switches to all-distance learning on Aug. 31.

The teachers union noted that coronavirus cases are appearing on school campuses even before students return. Earlier this week it cited at least nine campuses with one positive case since teachers returned to work in late July — though two of the schools were later disputed by DOE — and mentioned several more schools Thursday.

DOE’s Phased Plan Isn’t Totally All-Distance

Last week, the DOE pivoted to an all-distance plan for the first month of the school year. But the phased approach has loopholes. It carves out room for schools, if they want, to bring back students on a “coordinated and scheduled basis, determined by each individual school” to connect with teachers and get trained in distance learning and provide more in-person instruction for high-needs kids.

Documented instances of some schools’ intentions to do so at a time when the state has barred gatherings larger than 10 and shut down parks, beaches and hiking trails stirred the teachers union to call for an executive order from the governor Thursday to halt such reopening plans.

“Gov. Ige, you hold the safety of children and educators in your hands,” Rosenlee said. “You have the power to stop these dangerous plans before we have to bury a teacher or a student.”

But Ige, in an afternoon press conference, stood by the superintendent’s message, saying that “students would be coming on campus by appointment only, specifically for the purpose of getting training for the online platform.”

Kishimoto in her statement said it was “a misleading claim” by HSTA to say “tens of thousands of students” are returning for in-person instruction next week, calling it “a scare tactic that follows multiple publicity stunts to create further anxiety at a time when we need sound leadership.”

She defended schools’ plans to bring students back next week as only “as needed” to connect with teachers, get trained in online platforms and pick up any necessary devices.

She said schools have enforced the proper safety protocols if they do this, designating just an hour for this training to occur.

But HSTA issued a response late Thursday afternoon pointing to concrete examples of teachers being asked to come back to campus next week for full-day instruction, including at Waipahu High, a school of 2,800, where, according to one teacher, the school will divide students into four groups and “we will spend at least 40 minutes in each of the seven periods.”

“If the governor and superintendent support only having students and their parents pick up distance learning materials, they should say that,” Rosenlee said. “Otherwise, their claims are disingenuous and worse, dangerous.”

The HSTA supports socially-distanced drive-by pickups next week for students to get computers or instructional packets or grab-and-go meals from their schools.

Rosenlee also called upon all of the state’s teachers to wear black on Monday if having to report to campus in protest over safety concerns — “as in the color people wear to funerals,” he said. He also urged the state Board of Education to extend the distance learning period for students through the end of the first quarter, ending Oct. 2.

Kishimoto’s missive struck a raw nerve with many teachers around the state. She had accused Rosenlee of telling teachers “not to show up for students,” while the union has advised its 13,700 strong teacher force to show up to campus for paid training days at the expense of nine instructional days.

Upon the union’s urging, the DOE decided to push back the start of the school year from Aug. 4 to Aug. 17, with the board’s approval, to give teachers more time to prepare for online learning.

The people actually charged with teaching the students say they’re exhausted and at their wit’s end over an insinuation that a reluctance to come back to campus over safety concerns somehow reflects their commitment to their jobs.

“All of the constant changes from the DOE and their refusal to take this virus seriously in schools has made planning extremely challenging and emotionally exhausting,” said Rebecca Reichert Arlander, a social studies teacher at Washington Middle in central Honolulu.

“They have had months to plan,” she said. “And hoping that Hawaii’s numbers stayed down should not have been plan A.”

Arlander added that Washington Middle’s administration has been “doing the best they can with the direction they have been provided and all the sudden changes.”

The school, she said, recently decided to switch to all-online learning through the end of the first quarter and has allowed all teachers to work remotely.

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