Hawaii Superintendent Christina Kishimoto assured state Board of Education members Thursday that clearer, more detailed guidance for the re-opening of schools is coming in two weeks.

“Our goal is to have all of this finalized to the greatest extent possible by next Friday and ready to the public by July 2 and ready for the board shortly thereafter so we can have continued conversations,” she said during the board’s bimonthly Webex meeting.

The Hawaii Department of Education’s open-ended guidance on what schools will look like when they reopen for the 2020-21 calendar year August 4 has been the source of ongoing frustration for parents, union officials and school community members.

Paper towels and disinfectant inside the Kaneohe Elementary School cafeteria summer school opened during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Paper towels and disinfectant inside the Kaneohe Elementary School cafeteria during its summer school program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The DOE has thus far produced a one-page flyer listing general safety guidelines for in-person teaching when it comes to social distancing between desks and cleaning and sanitizing spaces in the classroom that many have found wanting in detail.

Kishimoto provided some additional insight into the DOE’s plans for holding classes next school year for the state’s nearly 180,000 public school students.

“There are more unknowns than knowns but we’re planning on certain assumptions,” she said, which include the DOE having the base operational funding to maintain 180 instructional days; that it will “maximize” in-person instruction based on parents’ feedback; and that it will provide blended learning and distance learning models as part of its offerings.

She added that a parent survey that went out at the beginning of the month has so far gotten 18,000 responses, and that 14% of respondents sought a distance learning model.

The majority of survey takers, she said, requested schools be physically reopened.

She added that the DOE has calculated $53 million in base costs for the technology demands alone to support distance learning for devices and kids’ connectivity, plus another $50 million for additional safety needs, including masks and cleaning.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,700 teachers, is one group demanding more specifics from the DOE to ensure the health and safety of its members.

“If our schools are not safe, teachers will not teach,” HSTA president Corey Rosenlee told the board. “They will resign, retire or request accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

In its written testimony, the HSTA cited a nationwide poll by USA Today that indicated 1 in 5 teachers was unlikely to return to the classroom next school year and that 30% of parents were “very likely” to turn to distance learning options.

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