In Jodi Kunimitsu’s math class at Maui High, the student absences steadily crept up last week.

On Tuesday, the first day back to school for Hawaii public school students after a two-week winter break, one-third of 26 students in a single period did not come to school. By Wednesday, 46% of the students were out. And by Friday, more than half of the students were absent, resulting in a class with just 11 kids.

“It’s been crazy,” the high school math teacher said Friday. “The absentee rate has been really high. Some students have emailed me to say they’re not feeling well or some parents are not comfortable sending their students to school until they’ve gotten tested or boosted.”

Like schools systems nationwide, Hawaii’s Department of Education has faced a slew of challenges in the first week of the second half of the school year in the midst of the latest Covid-19 surge, which is driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Maui Baldwin HS
Hawaii DOE could not provide the total number of student absences across the state for the first week of January but individual teachers shared a high absentee rate in their classes. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

More than 800 teachers called in sick on a daily basis, while roughly the same number didn’t report to school for other reasons. Meanwhile, schools have been seeing a large number of students miss school, too.

“Some are staying home because they or their families are nervous about the omicron variant,” said Kauai High language arts teacher Jonathon Medeiros. He said 20 of 60 of his students were absent in a single day this past week. “I’m nervous because of how many people are getting sick and how many more people are getting sick each day.”

The DOE has stood firm in its decision to keep children in school instead of resorting to remote learning as many mainland schools have done. But critics say the high number of teacher absences has forced many children to be herded into gyms or cafeterias supervised by non-instructional staff, leading to little learning anyway.

“You’re pulling out non-classroom teachers, counselors pulled from their jobs … you need to go and babysit, security guards are being pulled,” the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Osa Tui Jr., said earlier this week.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said Friday she did not have cumulative student absence data to share for the first week.

But the persistent staff shortages caused interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi to advise complex area superintendents and principals on Thursday to invoke so-called emergency assignments if needed, meaning a principal could reassign employees like counselors, registrars and curriculum coordinators to classroom duty for a period not to exceed 10 days.

“If the principal exhausts all available alternatives and is still unavailable to provide for classroom coverage (such as finding a substitute), the principal, in the best interest of the students’ welfare, may invoke (this school code),” Hayashi said in a memo issued Thursday.

It called the practice “an extraordinary measure to be invoked in a manner that minimizes disruption to existing classrooms” but said it shouldn’t be applied to combine two separate classrooms under a single teacher.

Hawaii Not Alone

The challenge of resuming school amid the surge is plaguing school districts around the country. New York City Public Schools, the largest school system in the country that also resumed in-person learning last week, saw persistent student absences with no more than three-quarters of students attending school on a daily basis.

The problem has been exacerbated in Hawaii and elsewhere by the lack of sufficient substitute teachers.

The Hawaii Department of Education’s Covid-19 dashboard reported a record number of positive cases in the first week of January, topping out at more than 400 cases across 97 schools on Tuesday, or more than 1,500 cases in the first few days of January alone.

One reassuring point is that the latest variant is not causing any significant increase in young kids who require hospitalization, according to Melinda Ashton, executive vice president and chief quality officer at Hawaii Pacific Health.

“We do notice that about half of the children, who are being admitted with something else, are testing positive for Covid-19 on admission,” she said. “We still find that the majority of hospitalized children have not been vaccinated, including kids five years and older.”

Honowai Elementary School 4th grade teacher Dalen Izumo with large monitor and students using laptop computers.
Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi told principals they may invoke a code that reassigns classroom teachers to other duties due to severe staffing shortages. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Teachers who work the length of a typical school year, or 10 months, get 18 days of sick leave per year. There is additional leave called “quarantine leave,” which is special short-term leave with pay, if they provide a doctor’s note that the employee’s presence at work “would endanger the health of others.”

This leave can be used when a teacher is subject to a quarantine order, experiencing Covid symptoms or has been advised by a health care professional to isolate. There is no limit to how many quarantine days can be taken in any given year, so long as a doctor’s order is provided.

On the ground, the disruptions mean many kids are being forced to adapt to changes to their normal routines.

Brandon Maher, 16, a junior at Maui High, said his class was redirected to the cafeteria on more than one day last week because of the lack of a classroom instructor. “We just sit there on our phones and do nothing,” he said. “I only had to do it twice, but I’ve had subs for multiple (other) classes.”

His younger sister, Cailyn, 12, a seventh grader at Lokelani Intermediate in Kihei, said a security guard had to step in to supervise one of her classes. She also had to go to a different science class after her usual physical education class was canceled due to lack of an instructor.

Their mother, Erin Hayden-Baldauf, who teaches study skills at Lokelani Intermediate, said it’s pretty typical not to have enough substitute teachers. “It’s been that way since August,” she said. “The shortages were never as bad as this year. We were always short-staffed, the problem is the subs don’t want to work … for garbage money.”

The teacher also said it’s been emotionally taxing to see the large number of students out of school since the winter break, and that it’s very hard to introduce new concepts or ensure her whole class is on the same page at any given time.

“This week has just way more student absences, way more,” she said. “I can’t keep teaching new stuff going forward — the kids who are not here won’t get caught up, and I can’t re-teach the same things over and over, that’s not fair either.”

Lanai High and Elementary School students walk to classes in the morning before the starting bell rings.
Students spent the last two weeks of December on winter break, just as the omicron variant was surging. On Jan. 4, DOE reported a total of 419 cases across 87 schools, a new record since 182 cases were spread across 100 schools last August. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The teacher’s union has berated DOE officials for failing to come up with better contingency measures due to the Covid disruptions or negotiating with union officials to prepare for a remote learning plan.

However, some school administrators said it still makes sense for Hawaii schools to remain open for in-person instruction at this time. The DOE has said it’s important to keep offering in-person instruction and it will be up to each individual school to determine whether switching to virtual learning will be necessary.

“If we close our school system, we are disrupting the entire state,” said Bob Davis, complex area superintendent for the Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua complex area on Oahu, referring to impacts on other industries and parents who would have to find child care. He said in his complex area, district-area personnel are filling in on an as-needed basis when teachers call out sick.

“We’re in a pandemic,” he said. “Yes, students are getting substandard daily instruction at the moment because of the situation, but the majority of students are getting their duly deserved, appropriate education.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne said Friday she has asked that the DOE provide more individualized data about the supports needed at each school. She said she doesn’t anticipate a statewide closure or temporary transition to full remote learning — like several individual charter schools are doing, as well as University of Hawaii campuses and Chaminade University — but that it’s important to note circumstances in individual areas where the Covid infection rate may be higher than normal.

“Some schools are having a harder time keeping kids in masks and others are much more compliant,” she said by way of example. “We really need to look at the situation individually, school by school, and not just as it (affects) teachers, but cafeteria workers, education assistants and security.”

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