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BOE chair expects more flexibility to request telework

Kauai teacher calls for more teacher tech support during PBS Insights program

Now that the Hawaii State Department of Education has decided to extend distance learning for most public school students until the end of the first quarter, Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne said she expects more flexibility on educators’ requests to telework.

“My understanding is, as we move into the next phase of this, after the first four weeks, there will be much more flexibility to request telework from home, but along with that will be some discussion about whether they have that capability to provide the technological support that they need from their homes,” Payne said Thursday night on Insights on PBS Hawaii, during a panel discussion titled “Back to School During COVID-19.”

Watch the full episode here

While some principals and complex area superintendents (CASs) have been approving telework applications for classroom teachers, other principals and CASs have rejected those applications.

Earlier Thursday, HIDOE announced it would extend distance learning through Oct. 2, a move the Hawaii State Teachers Association had requested weeks ago.

Taylor McCann, a junior at Waiakea High in the Hilo area, also appeared on the PBS Hawaii program and said she supported the ability of her teachers to telework.

“I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be allowed to teach from home as long as they have sufficient materials and technology to lecture from home and join Zoom calls from home, because not only is it endangering their safety, but the more we send people out and some people to work who can, in theory, work from home, I feel like it’s not helping slow the spread as much as we could be,” McCann said.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee, who also appeared on the program Thursday, said, “The less time they’re on campus, the less likely it (COVID-19) is to spread, and so that is definitely a concern. They should be able to telework.”

Know your rights: teachers and telework

A teacher from Kauai called in to the PBS Hawaii program with this telework concern: “Some of my fellow teachers haven’t even been given a properly working Macbook and have to use a student’s Chromebook. We need proper equipment to teach.”

Kevin Matsunaga, also from Kauai, teaches digital media at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, and said, “The technology issue is a huge deal. Teachers need equipment that can allow them to do it (telework).”

At his school, Matsunaga said, “We’ve had to give teachers Chromebooks, which aren’t that great for a teacher to create lessons on. So we’re trying to get everybody a decent computer, which is tough.”

Payne, the BOE chair, said, “That’s one of the reasons that the department and some of the principals have really wanted to keep the teachers on campus, even if the students are not, because they have more technical support. They have more equipment on the campus that teachers can use. So that’s part of the dilemma.” 

At the same time, Payne said teachers of students with special needs are able to teach virtually.

“I know that there are some special ed teachers who are doing amazing things and who have told me that we can figure this out. We can do this, even online, with a lot of support,” Payne said.

“Some of them are doing it already. If we expect that, however, we’re going to have to really increase our support for those teachers, because the bottom line is that we cannot leave those youngsters behind and those families behind with those children,” she added.

Reality check: Hundreds of students on some campuses each day last week

Kalani High Principal Mitchell Otani also appeared on the program, and said, “We do what we have to do to make sure everybody is safe. That is first and foremost in the minds of everybody that is on campus.”

Kalani is the 12th largest high school in the state with about 1,500 students, Otani said.

Asked about how school campuses can remain safe right now, Matsunaga, the Kauai teacher, said, “I don’t know how that is possible when you bring in 400 students to campus on a given day. We just had four days of students on campus.”

At Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School last week, Matsunaga said, “Normally we are at about 900, so we brought about 450 students on campus. And everything we hear about no more than 10 to a group, six feet of social distancing. And then the DOE says ‘Oh no, you can do it with three feet.’ I don’t understand how some of the logic applies into some of these allowances that are OK for schools. Like Oahu, you guys can’t even do more than five people. And yet at one point, I had 18 students on two of my days in a confined space. I don’t know how we’re saying we want kids to be safe but yet we’re bringing so many kids on campus.”

Insights on PBS Hawaii host Daryl Huff asked Matsunaga, “Do you personally feel safe?”

Matsunaga answered: “I don’t. I don’t.”

“I was surprised to hear Kevin Matsunaga talk about having so many kids in the classroom,” Huff said, asking him to clarify.

“I normally teach in a computer lab, and there was no way that would be able to fit 18. So I asked if I could use the back part of the library to have my class back there so I can have everything open up, but we’re still in an air-conditioned building. The library’s still used by other people. My classes ranged from 18 down to seven. And that was all last week, when we brought students on campus for four days, four full days, to pick up their Chromebooks, meet their teachers and take diagnostic tests at the same time,” Matsunaga said.

Rosenlee said, “The frustration is when you hear what Mitch says and what Kevin says and what Taylor says and what Kim says, that it’s different at every single school and you have hundreds of kids going onto a campus, and being crowded into a classroom in the middle of a pandemic.”

An HSTA survey of head faculty representatives this week found that only about 36 percent of the 145 campus leaders who responded said their schools are conducting 100-percent distance learning.

The survey found 21 percent of campuses report all students with special needs have in-person instruction. Another 61 percent of campuses reported only fully self-contained or other small subsets of special education students are being taught in-person.

The PBS program received this written question posed Thursday night: “I’m a special ed teacher. Do you really think it’s safe to have special ed students on campus and I want them safe too.”

Payne, who chairs the BOE, answered, “I am very concerned, and we have more students in certain schools. So they’re clustered in large groups in certain schools and already we’re seeing some situations that are causing concern.”

Rosenlee said, “I want to paint the picture of what I’ve heard from our special education teachers, where you can have 15 or 20 kids (and adults) in a classroom because some of the kids need a one-on-one situation and you’re definitely not six feet. Some of the kids can’t wear a mask. And so these are very frustrating for teachers and they just feel like their health and safety is at risk.

“There has to be the realization that just because a child has special needs or is an English language learner doesn’t make them impervious to this virus, nor does it make the teacher impervious,” Rosenlee added.

State still hasn’t created COVID-19 triggers for school safety

Matsunaga spoke for educators across the state when he said, “Every teacher wants to be back in the classroom in front of the students and able to work closely with students and to be able to walk up to a student’s desk and help them with something. Every teacher wants that.

“We all want our students back in the classroom, but we want to be able to have that done safely,” he added.

“We need to have some sort of metrics in place that can state when it’s technically safe,” Matsunaga said. “That’s what’s been frustrating for teachers is that there hasn’t been much direction from the Department of Health, from our state Department of Education on what that looks like.”

For months, the HSTA has asked the state DOH and HIDOE for specific health triggers when it would be safe to open schools and when outbreaks require schools, complexes, or the entire state to close in-school education. But the state has failed to produce those standards, unlike states and school districts across the country, even though campuses opened to some students last week.

“There has to be a metric as to when schools are safe enough for students as well as faculty to come back,” said Otani, the Kalani principal.

“Where it be single digit cases like we had in early June or maybe just low double digit. I’m not exactly sure, but there has to be some metric that we can set out there that we can have that we can say, “Okay, this is safe enough for everyone to return to school,’” Otani said.

Rosenlee said, “School systems are either closed completely right now or the ones that have tried to open, like Georgia, it’s been a train wreck. Two thousand people in Georgia right now are quarantined. What we’ve got to decide is it’s got to be about not the date, but the data. And the research that shows that you can’t actually open a school system effectively.

“Right now the data is showing that no school system has been able to open effectively without an outbreak of cases,” Rosenlee added.

Distance learning more likely to continue for the entire semester, Payne says

Asked if it seems schools should stay in distance learning mode through the end of the calendar year is a more viable option than continuously trying to look for a date, Payne, the BOE chair, said, “it’s likely to me that that will happen, because I think cases are going to continue to go up. They’re testing a lot more people and I think you can expect that community spread, at least on Oahu, is going to increase.

“I think it’s also really hard for our teachers to switch. We talk about pivoting back and forth, but pivoting is not easy,” Payne said, “and when you finally are starting to get where you need to be and then to make that big switch back—because both kinds of instruction take a considerable amount of planning to be effective, and I think we have to really look at the schools and the teachers who we are asking to implement this learning. It’s about health and safety, but it’s also about how can they be most effective? How much can we ask of them to keep changing as they’re moving along?”

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