The Hawaii Department of Education is recruiting teachers from the mainland to facilitate its statewide distance learning program, contributing to the delay in getting more students off a long waitlist.

Teri Ushijima, interim assistant superintendent in the office of curriculum and instructional design, told the Board of Education that at least 245 kids are still waiting to get into the distance program.

“We are doing our best to hire teachers as soon as we are able to and open up seats as quickly as we can,” she said Thursday during a board meeting. “Many of our teachers have been hired out of state, so many can relocate within a week or two.”

Aliiolani Elementary School students wait outside classrooms before the start of the first day of school during a COVID-19 pandemic.
The first day of the new school year was Aug. 3. Three weeks in, the interim superintendent gave an update. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But she stressed that the teachers can’t start working until they arrive in the islands despite calls to let them start instruction remotely.

So far, 2,315 students, or about 1.4% of the entire student body, are registered in distance learning programs across the state, she said. A total 660 students have been referred by schools to the state-based program alone.

The state Department of Education has insisted that most kids should return to full in-person learning this year after more than a year of mostly virtual learning as schools struggled to adapt to the pandemic.

The DOE has a limited number of spots for children to participate in distance learning out of health concerns, but the plans were rolled out just days before the new school year began on Aug. 3 and officials are still scrambling to accommodate the demand.

During Thursday’s meeting, Board of Education member Kaimana Barcarse questioned why the DOE couldn’t modify its policy or guidelines to enable the mainland hires to start immediately from their current place of residence instead of waiting for them to relocate.

“It seems to me that especially during a pandemic and the economic crisis we’re in, that possibly changing (the mainland rule) would create more opportunity for our students to get highly qualified distance learning remotely,” Barcarse said.

Relocation Requirements

Sean Bacon, interim assistant superintendent in the office of talent management, responded that the current DOE guidelines require “that all employees who are on telework must be in the state of Hawaii.”

“We will be putting a committee together to look at the current guidelines and if we need to make modifications,” he said, adding that factors like workers’ compensation and residency tax requirements are part of the equation.

He also said the department was hiring teachers from the mainland to allow instructors already in Hawaii to focus on their in-person classes and avoid “putting any additional strains on the schools right now.”

On Wednesday, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the department has hired 18 distance learning teachers so far and was looking to hire five to seven more. Late Thursday, she said she did not know offhand how many of those new hires are from the mainland.

“The signs show the pandemic is not going to end. In-person learning cannot end.” — Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi

Toward the end of last year, many teachers had to simultaneously lead classes online and on-campus due to a hybrid system that gave parents a choice of whether to keep their kids in school.

Now, with the full return of students to campuses, many teachers say their classrooms are brimming with students and they are unable to maintain Covid distancing requirements, contributing to safety concerns.

Addressing concerns about the spike in Covid cases due to the highly contagious delta variant, Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said the DOE would deal with possible outbreaks on campuses as they arise in conjunction with guidance from state Department of Health officials.

“They are the medical experts and we will defer to them in looking at any of those decisions should they occur,” said Hayashi, who took the helm of the DOE from prior superintendent Christina Kishimoto on Aug. 1.

Since Friday is a state holiday, the DOE also provided its latest weekly Covid case count.

There were 383 confirmed staff and student cases since Saturday, compared with 325 the previous week. In 276 of the new cases, the DOE said the infected individual “was not on a campus during the infectious period,” indicating that the protocol to stay home when sick is “working to help prevent spread at schools.”

Union Concerns

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,500 teachers, this week demanded that education officials negotiate a memorandum of understanding to help protect teacher safety in schools and to provide any appropriate triggers for contingency instruction.

Kalima Kinney, principal of The Volcano School of Arts and Sciences on Hawaii island, a public charter school, was one of many testifiers who pleaded with the BOE to consider the demand for negotiations.

“A clear formula and accounting will be sufficient to maximize safety,” she said.

The DOE also gave an update about compliance with Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamation for state and county employees to get vaccinated against Covid or face mandatory weekly testing.

Hawaii teachers and other DOE personnel have until Aug. 30 to upload proof of their vaccination status or be subject to the weekly testing.

“This is a testing requirement not a vaccine mandate, so there is no religious exception to testing,” Hayashi said.

As of Thursday, 14,300 of 45,000 DOE staff members had uploaded their vaccination status to an internal portal. Bacon said that 78% of the respondents were vaccinated.

However, in a message to members uploaded to its website Thursday, the HSTA said there was a loophole to the new mandate: those who previously contracted Covid and had been cleared to return to work are exempt from the weekly testing for 90 days.

It said requirements for the exception include a lack of new symptoms, completion of an isolation and quarantine period, and an upload of documentation confirming the date of infection and that the patient had been released.

Hayashi reiterated his confidence in the safety protocols aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus in schools.

“We have systems in place to ensure learning environments are safe,” he said. “The signs show the pandemic is not going to end. In-person learning cannot end.”

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