The union representing Hawaii’s 13,500 public school teachers has filed a pair of grievances against the Department of Education over the implementation of the state’s Covid-19 testing mandate and “unsafe and changing working conditions” in classrooms, according to a release issued on Tuesday.

The grievances, which are not lawsuits but complaints on behalf of a group of members alleging violations of the collective bargaining agreement, fall more than a month after the new school year began on Aug. 3 with the full return of students to campuses amid an alarming rise of statewide Covid case counts due to the aggressive delta variant.

“The increase of positive COVID-19 cases and employer’s failure to consistently implement health and safety guidelines have created an unsafe working environment for HSTA’s members,” one of the actions states. The other grievance pertains to a requirement that teachers who refuse to get vaccinated submit to weekly testing, often at their own expense.

HSTA Hawaii State Teachers Association Oahu Office located at 1200 Ala Kapuna Street.
The HSTA filed a pair of class grievances last Friday over the state’s Covid testing mandate for unvaccinated teachers and unsafe working conditions in schools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The full reopening of school campuses has resulted in a gradual uptick in positive Covid-19 cases reported by DOE on a week-by-week basis. As of Monday, 2,300 school-based cases had been reported since July 1. Interim superintendent Keith Hayashi, however, maintains that “schools are not amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission because of the mitigation protocols schools are enforcing.”

But according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association, this school year is generating new working conditions, which require further negotiations and bargaining.

The ever-shifting health landscape has caused “thousands of staff and students to quarantine which in turn has required employees to engage in telework while on leave, increased their working hours to implement blended instructional delivery, and caused other substantive changes in the working conditions of bargaining unit 05 employees,” the HSTA said in a statement.

In an open letter to DOE officials and the state Board of Education last month, union leaders outlined teachers’ concerns with inconsistent mask wearing and social distancing, crowded classrooms, lack of Covid-19 case notifications and inconsistent school responses, among other things.

In both grievances, the HSTA reiterated demands it has made since mid-August for DOE officials to “properly consult and meaningfully bargain with the union.”

HSTA leaders say they met with Hayashi and an interim assistant superintendent, Sean Bacon, last Monday over their concerns but that Hayashi had been “noncommittal regarding scheduling any follow-up meetings on the above concerns and would not commit to anything more than ‘informal’ talks.”

In a statement late Tuesday, Hiyashi said that “from the onset of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, the Department has been engaged in semi-monthly and monthly meetings with the HSTA on Covid-related issues that affect teachers covered under Bargaining Unit 5.”

“The DOE remains focused and committed to ensuring safe, in-person learning for all students,” his statement read. “Prioritizing in-person learning by ensuring our schools are safe will take everyone working together.”

Under an emergency proclamation issued by Gov. David Ige that took effect Aug. 30 for DOE employees, all school personnel must provide proof of the Covid-19 vaccine or be tested every week for the virus. While the teachers union said it advocates for all eligible individuals to get the shots, it says the new rule took effect without any negotiations, leading to unvaccinated teachers having to pay out of pocket for their tests.

The grievance requests these weekly Covid-19 tests be provided to employees free of cost or that individuals be reimbursed.

There are a number of free testing sites around the islands, according to Ige’s proclamation states that if a worker does not access a free testing tide, the employee “must cover any testing costs.”

“In addition, they may be subject to restrictions on official travel,” the order adds.

HSTA encourages its unvaccinated members to seek free testing, and if they can’t find such a site, to “immediately notify their supervisor and ask for guidance.” The union also advises members to ask their supervisor to cover the cost of the test or request reimbursement, while saving all receipts.

There is no official count as to how many public school teachers are fully vaccinated. But HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. said Tuesday, “We’ve been told 91% of those covered by our bargaining unit are fully vaccinated or have begun their vaccinations.”

The DOE serves 159,500 students across 257 schools.

If unresolved, HSTA grievances go to arbitration. The last time the union filed a grievance was in August 2020 when it sought clearer guidance from the DOE on Covid protocols in schools, health and safety procedures, teacher telework policies and other matters.

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