Hawaii’s public schools grappled with staffing shortages as 12% of the teaching force was absent on Wednesday, three days after campuses resumed operations following the holidays despite concerns about the omicron-driven Covid surge.

Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said 800 of about 13,500 teachers “called out sick and stayed home today” while another 800 were “out for other reasons. He didn’t provide details. Meanwhile, 400 substitute requests across the 257-school system could not be met, he added.

“This is a reflection of what’s happening in our community,” Hayashi said. “Staffing challenges unfortunately are a statewide issue across all industries.”

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi speaks during a press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi says teacher shortages reflect staffing problems statewide. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hayashi didn’t say how many of the sick calls were Covid-related or address the severity of the cases.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani later said the additional absences were due to things like personal leave, vacation or sabbaticals. The 400 substitute requests comprised about a third of the school system’s peak of 1,200 to 1,300 per day last spring and fall.

Wednesday’s number of teacher absences largely mirrored numbers on Monday and Tuesday, with 800 teachers and 862 people calling in sick on those days. In total, the absences were 1,380 and 1,635, respectively, Kalani said.

Hayashi also did not directly address how schools were handling the lack of substitutes, other than to note that taken on a whole across 257 schools, 400 unfilled substitutes averaged only about two classrooms per school.

But the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Osa Tui Jr., said the high number of vacancies meant non-instructional staff had to step in.

“You’re pulling out non-classroom teachers, counselors pulled from their jobs … you need to go and babysit, security guards are being pulled,” he said.

Schools also saw a record number of positive Covid cases on Monday, with 419 cases reported across 87 campuses. The previous high was 182 cases across 100 schools on Aug. 23.

Teachers returned from the two-week break on Monday, while students returned on Tuesday.

Hawaii’s DOE has been adamant about keeping kids in school for in-person learning to stem any further loss in learning or socialization even as critics call for at least a temporary return to remote classes as the daily coronavirus case count has frequently surpassed 2,000 in recent weeks.

“The department appears to be caught off-guard despite months to prepare,” Tui said. “Teachers have certain protocols and procedures that could easily be followed. Schools need that flexibility and teachers need input in how schools need to make changes.”

The DOE has insisted that on-campus safety measures including mandatory mask-wearing, the availability of vaccines and booster shots for eligible students and testing capacity are sufficient, though Covid tests are not mandatory at schools and not every campus has access to on-site testing.

Teachers must be fully vaccinated or take a mandatory weekly Covid-19 test to fulfill a state emergency proclamation, while student athletes and coaching staff must be fully vaccinated to participate in school athletics.

“We’ve done a really good job of providing a safe in-person environment for students,” said Hayashi, former Waipahu High principal who became the interim DOE superintendent last August and will serve until a permanent candidate is selected by the state Board of Education later this year.

However, education officials have offered little guidance about when or how to transition to virtual learning in case of widespread disruptions to on-campus learning.

Student received her COVID-19 vaccination at Ilima Intermediate School and needed to wait to be observed after shot.
Many schools began offering vaccine clinics last year and some are still in the process of offering them. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii’s latest virus surge began in early December as schools were winding down the first semester. While the winter recess diffused the spread, the teacher’s union and parents have criticized what they call the DOE’s lack of adequate preparation for this situation.

The new omicron variant has led to surging cases in Hawaii over the last month but hospitalizations haven’t dramatically risen in tandem, although health officials warn the virus can still wreak havoc, especially among the unvaccinated.

Spots in the DOE’s statewide distance learning program were all claimed at the beginning of the year, and parents fearful of sending their kids back in light of omicron should contact their school principal to make alternative arrangements now, Hayashi said.

He emphasized that each school community differs in the severity of Covid-related impacts and said principals will coordinate with their complex area superintendents to make any needed adjustments.

“If there is a need to adjust, I am very confident we will be able to do that within the particular situation and be able to communicate with parents and let them know what’s happening at that particular point of time,” he said.

Still, teacher absences recorded so far suggest more staff shortages may be in store due to possible illness, isolation periods following exposure to Covid patients, or other possible pandemic-induced responsibilities such as having to stay home and care for an ill child or family member.

Incoming HSTA president Osa Tui with McKinley High School in the background.
HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. says the DOE should have developed a clear and transparent plan for dealing with Covid surges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In a Tuesday memo to principals and complex area superintendents, Hayashi, who has expressed a desire to stay on as the permanent superintendent, outlined the possible worst-case scenarios, including entire classroom closures due to lack of supervision, or even a “statewide disruption.”

The memo said any shifts in instruction across the entire DOE system would be announced at least three weeks prior to implementation.

But he did not provide any specifics about what might trigger a schoolwide closure and suggested principals may even need to make a same-day determination about canceling class and telling students to stay home, while contacting parents “as soon as possible.”

“I ask for everyone’s patience and understanding, because that’s our commitment, to keep our schools open,” he said.

Across social media, some teachers also reported high numbers of absences in their classrooms, averaging between 20% to 25% of their students being out.

Hayashi’s Jan. 4 memo didn’t offer much guidance to schools for what to do when they face severe staffing shortages, other than that they “should create a plan for the continuation of learning for the classroom(s) affected.”

Staffing shortages have hit not just teachers, but also supplemental staff in the first half of the school year, including school bus drivers and custodial staff.

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