After thousands of educators and parents expressed concerns about unsafe social distancing protocols that violate a school reopening agreement between the state and Hawaii State Teachers Association, the Hawaii State Board of Education Thursday night voted to defer approval of the deal.

The Hawaii State Department of Education’s reopening plan makes six-foot social distancing in classrooms and wearing masks optional, contrary to the memorandum of understanding approved June 27 with HSTA.

‘What’s being asked of us is a life-or-death decision’

Robin O’Hara, who teaches at Kealakehe Intermediate on the west side of Hawaii Island, was one of 20 teachers who testified virtually before the BOE’s meeting Thursday. 

“Protect us or we will not be around to teach if we are sick or dead,” she pleaded with board members, concerned about plans to allow student desks to be a close as three feet away from each other, much less safe than the six-foot social distancing requirements at businesses, restaurants, offices, and government buildings throughout the country and state.

“Kids in other countries are wearing masks and back in school and embracing it. It’s the right thing to do to protect each other,” O’Hara added. HSTA fought to ensure that the agreement said masks should be worn inside schools unless medically impossible.

“What’s being asked of us is a life-or-death decision, and you need to understand that. If we don’t have the minimum protection of masks and six-feet distancing, you’re putting people’s lives at unnecessary risk,” O’Hara said.

Parents, educators, and community members submitted nearly 3,000 pages of testimony on the issue—a record number, according to BOE Chair Catherine Payne.

“I went to Costco the other day and I was required to stand six feet away from my fellow patrons,” testified Brandon Cha, a teacher at Pearl City High. “I understand that UH campuses are opening this fall with six-feet distancing. I understand that restaurants also doing six-feet distancing as well. Why are not public schools doing that? Why are we okay with three feet?”

Cha said the HIDOE’s reopening standards are hypocritical, noting, “This very BOE meeting we’re in is being held virtually, with, I think, the same number of physical attendees that would have been there as a 30-student-sized classroom.

“These safety guidelines were adopted with safety of the highest concern, and not with convenience of implementation. This was done because we realized that anything less will result in us re-shutting down, similar to Arizona or Florida, and at worse, it can cause death,” Cha said.

Dana Gorelangton Turnbull, who teaches kindergarten at King Kamehameha III Elementary on Maui, told BOE members, “I thought we had a workable framework—still dangerous, but workable. Then Dr. Kishimoto changed her mind and decided on three-foot distance with no masks. First of all, that’s not safe. It’s not what the CDC recommends,” referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Second, Turnbull said standards drawn up by the state education and health departments are unrealistic because they allow students’ desks to be just three feet away if students face the front of the classroom and don’t face each other.

“Kindergarteners and most kids don’t face forward much. They’re real people. They’re just little. They talk and they touch and laugh and they cough and they sneeze in all directions all day long,” Turnbull said.

“I’m near retirement age, but I love teaching kindergarten. I would rather not retire now,” she added.

Listen to the full meeting audio
Password: HawaiiBOE2020

The BOE voted unanimously, eight to zero, to defer giving its approval to the memorandum of understanding after Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto asked for more time to discuss the concerns with the HSTA, which had protested the changes that violated its MOU.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “The HSTA appreciates the thousands of teachers, parents, and community members whose testimony helped convince the Board of Education to defer action on the agreement to reopen the schools.

“While today's deferral doesn't stop the memorandum of understanding, which is already in effect, board members gave clear direction that they would like the HIDOE to continue to work with HSTA to clarify language,” Rosenlee said. 

“HSTA is still committed to protect the health and safety of our keiki and educators by maintaining six feet of social distancing and ensuring face coverings as both parties agreed to in our MOU on June 27,” Rosenlee added.

Kishimoto said, “If we’re going to be three, four, or five feet in a particular classroom, do we need to be stricter with the masks? Do we need to be stricter with some other things that will help everyone feel safer about that environment? That’s important. That’s critical to our conversation.”

Kishimoto said she understood educators’ safety worries, but said, “My concern is the other health and safety matters we create when we can’t accommodate a high-need child or another risky situation; a child left alone in their home while a parent goes to work. And while that onus is not just on the school system, that’s the balance that we’re trying to consider here on how to create a safe learning environment, and consider these parameters that we need to work within.”

BOE members concerned about 3 feet vs. 6 feet of distancing

Board of Education member Kaimana Barcarse helped to negotiate the MOU with the HSTA.

“It was my understanding that it was six feet whenever possible, that six feet would be the norm. Anything other than that would be more the exception, rather than the rule. I’m confident that getting together with HSTA, we can find some common ground to keep our teachers and our students safe,” Barcarse said.

BOE member Maggie Cox said, “If we have an MOU, we need to abide by it. I think we need to follow that.”

“I just want to reassure teachers that we are grateful for your efforts,” said BOE member Kili Namauu. “To many of our teachers, this (reopening plan) is not sufficient at all. I just want them to know that we do care about you, because many of you felt we don’t care.”

Board member Kenneth Uemura told his colleagues, “Some of the things that concern me are the comments on the distancing, and when do we wear masks.

“If we’re going to err on the side of caution, then it should be six feet,” Uemura said.

HGEA leader: 'So far, the department has failed you'

Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, told the BOE, “We fully support trying to get our kids back in school.”

Perreira’s union represents school principals, vice principals, educational assistants, cafeteria managers, and other public school employees who aren’t teachers.

“Unless it was the intent of the board to have the planning process dumped on school administrators, I’m here to say that so far, the department has failed you,” he said.

“Plans continue to come out in a piecemeal and incomplete fashion,” Perreira said. “There is no consistency or uniformity, and frankly, there are too many questions and it’s growing more inconceivable that the department will have answers to these questions by Aug. 4.

“Your employees, parents, and our children are counting on you to make sure that this reopen of school really happens, but that it’s done right,” he concluded.

BOE member Dwight Takeno said, “When I’m reading these handbooks we are asking the principals to implement, I see the concerns that HGEA has raised. There are redundancies. There is conflicting guidance. It does not provide, in my opinion, enough clarity and it’s not consistent.

“The consultation with HGEA is important so we can provide the kind of clear guidance that school-level leaders need,” Takeno added.