The Hawaii Department of Education has agreed to make 6 feet of physical distancing in classrooms and other meeting spaces in schools the required benchmark once public schools reopen their doors next month, the state teachers union said late Monday.

The department had stated in its reopening plan and other health and safety manuals leading up to the Aug. 4 reopening date that 3 feet of separation between desks if students were all facing forward was adequate and that students need not wear masks in this configuration.

The guidance had the backing of the state Department of Health, which OK’d this set-up in a July 1 webinar to DOE principals and administrators. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a distance of at least 6 feet between students in schools.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during press conference on pay increases for special needs teachers.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE would update its guidance to reflect the new terms. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The proposal was eviscerated by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which implored its 13,700 members to flood the state Board of Education with letters of testimony voicing opposition — which they did. The board on Thursday deferred approving a memorandum of understanding between the DOE and HSTA from two weeks ago, requesting the parties to meet again to resolve the issue.

Now, per the revised agreement, schools that intend to place desks less than 6 feet apart must seek a contract exception no later than next Tuesday, from a committee comprised of two HSTA and two DOE representatives.

In a letter sent to HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck, DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said guidance would be “updated” to reflect the 6-feet distance benchmark. Her letter also indicated classroom distances between 3 and 6 feet “may be allowed with approved contract exceptions and additional precautions such as mandatory face coverings” and that classroom teachers would “determine routines and rules related to wearing of face covering(s) in their particular classrooms.”

The June 28 MOU between HSTA and DOE said schools shall maintain 6 feet or two arms’ length of separation between and among students and staff in meeting spaces and school grounds “whenever possible.”

“While the MOU … doesn’t expressly prohibit configuring student desks at less than six feet, distancing of three to six feet should not be the norm or a starting point,” the HSTA wrote Monday on its site, adding that “desks placed less than six feet apart should be the exception to the rule” with “clear and specific reasons that would justify an exception.”

The DOE’s 257 schools all submitted their school reopening plans last week. It’s not clear how many of those schools the updated agreement could impact as schools scramble to create more space. The plans feature a mix of online and in-person instruction, and in some cases at the elementary level, exclusively face-to-face instruction.

The HSTA negotiation team said it met with DOE for several hours Friday and through the weekend.

“We would not have been able to continue this conversation without you,” it wrote, in thanking its members.

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