HSTA: HIDOE needs to clearly explain school reopening plan

Superintendent says she will release detailed plans in two weeks

The Hawaii State Department of Education must spell out in clear detail how it will safely open public schools in the islands or large numbers of parents and teachers will not want to return to the classroom when school resumes in early August, leaders of the Hawaii State Teachers Association said Thursday.

In testimony to the Board of Education, HSTA Deputy Director Andrea Eshelman said, “Without clearly written and detailed health and safety protocols implemented with fidelity throughout the system, reopening will be a failure.

“The state’s current one-page sheet for reopening guidance is unacceptable, as is the three-foot classroom physical distancing standard it contains. Other states have already put out guidance that is in excess of 50 pages and we have one page right now,” Eshelman added.

“Certain decisions and actions must occur within the next two to three weeks to ensure our parents will allow their kids to return to school and employees will feel safe to show up,” Eshelman told BOE members.

In response, state Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told the BOE that more detailed guidance about school reopening will be released to the public on July 2.

Kishimoto said the one-page reopening document released by the HIDOE earlier this month “was meant to be parent-friendly and outward-facing, the bigger-bucket parameters that we have to stay within.”

But Kishimoto said there are additional extensive internal details that principals, complex area superintendents, and assistant superintendents are working on that create scenarios for complexes in different areas of the state.

She said various handbooks are being created to guide school principals, teachers, and staff through a safe reopening of schools.

“There are detailed documents on how custodians have to clean classrooms, detailed documents around what kind of health and safety (guidelines) all staff have to meet in terms of soap and hand sanitizers, availability of masks. There’s also detailed documents around our teachers and staff members who support our medically fragile and special ed students who need very close-contact handling,” Kishimoto said.

Members of the HSTA Negotiations Team have been invited to sit down with top HIDOE officials for 90 minutes on Monday afternoon to begin the detailed negotiating process about schools reopening. It's unclear whether Kishimoto will attend Monday's bargaining session.

Eshelman, who is also HSTA’s chief negotiator, told BOE members, “We understand that the situation is fluid but there are certain non-negotiables. HSTA, HGEA (Hawaii Government Employees Association), and UPW (United Public Workers) members are all expecting that bargaining to address changing work conditions will occur and the employer will ensure the safest possible work environment in compliance with HIOSH (the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division), the state Department of Health and the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) regulations.”

Since late April, the HSTA has repeatedly asked the HIDOE what model or models will be used to reopen public schools in school year 2020–21. In addition, we have asked how teachers and students will be supported with training and resources as part of any distance learning plan. HSTA also transmitted a two-page document to the HIDOE on May 19 with a lengthy list of health and safety issues that we believe need to be addressed and bargained before school reopens.

Use the audio player below to listen to the portion of the meeting that addressed the reopening of public schools for the 2020–21 school year, which began with public testimony.

Rosenlee: Educators need time and equipment in case they have to return to virtual teaching

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee told the board that “the 3-foot rule for physical distancing referenced in Hawaii DOE’s ‘Guidance for Reopening Schools’ directly contradicts the CDC’s recommendation of at least six feet for desks and is unacceptable. If the DOE gets this wrong, it will only ensure that Hawaii will have to close down our schools again.

“From day one, we need to give our teachers the time and equipment to prepare if we need to return to a complete virtual teaching environment. Which is exactly what happened when South Korea, Israel, and most recently Beijing (China) did when they had a breakout,” Rosenlee added.

Rosenlee also said there has to be a complete distance learning option provided for all families from preschool through 12th grade. 

“This is not what we would choose in normal times, but these are not normal times. There are various indications that tens of thousands of parents and guardians in Hawaii may not send their keiki back to school for health reasons and/or to protect their families,” Rosenlee said.

“In a state that has the highest rate of multigenerational homes, we cannot be indifferent to our families’ needs. If we do not offer a 100-percent distance learning option, we will force parents to opt-out and home school their keiki. Not only will this frustrate our families, this potentially will cost the Department of Education tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue from Weighted Student Formula and federal funding,” he added. 

And finally, Rosenlee said, “If schools are not safe, teachers will not teach. They will resign, retire, or they will request accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act

“These positions can’t be just filled with substitutes because many of our subs are retired teachers who are also vulnerable to the coronavirus. The DOE must provide a virtual alternative to teachers with underlying health conditions or teachers caring for a family member also with underlying health conditions,” Rosenlee said.

Here's what the superintendent plans, COVID-19 cost estimates

Kishimoto told the board, “We are looking at a combination of models that principals are vetting right now based on what parents are telling us they would like to see.”

Based on the preliminary data from 18,000 responses to the HIDOE’s parent survey, Kishimoto said that about “14 percent are asking for a distance learning model. The majority of parent responses is we would like the schools to open.”

Kishimoto said that means the HIDOE is working to figure out, “How do we maximize, if health conditions allow, the in-person, in-school. Take advantage of that time to train our staff, students, and parents on distance learning in case we have to switch to more blended learning or to fully distance learning at any point next year, knowing the reality, and be ready for that.

“There are more unknowns than knowns,” she said.

Kishimoto said the HIDOE is assuming it will:

  • Have the operating funds for a base 180 instructional days,
  • Need to maximize in-person instruction based on parent feedback, and 
  • Have to provide blended learning models and distance learning models as options.

Kishimoto said her goal is to have the HIDOE’s reopening plans “finalized, to the greatest extent possible, by next Friday, and ready for the public on July 2 and ready for the board shortly thereafter, so that we can have continued conservations at that point, based on what we know from the Legislature.”

State lawmakers begin a special session on Monday to tackle key budget and COVID-19 priorities.

Board of Education member Bruce Voss told Kishimoto, “‘From the Legislature’s perspective, the sooner that you can go to them with specific dollar amounts for all the options, I think, frankly the better chance we’re going to have to have some of those funds made available.”

Kishimoto said the HIDOE estimates $53 million of base cost expenses to meet the demands for technology, including devices and connectivity for students, and she has asked the Legislature and governor for those funds.

Some of that money could come from the federal CARES Act, which Congress approved earlier this spring to help states deal with the effects of the pandemic, Kishimoto said.

Beyond that, the HIDOE needs at least $50 million for additional safety needs, such as masks and cleaning, she said.

“It’s a balance between the models, the capacity we have in terms of how many staff we have in classrooms and the funds that we have to first prioritize towards health and safety, and secondly the technology,” Kishimoto said.

BOE members approve reopening framework with health and safety first priority

The BOE Thursday approved a resolution directing the HIDOE to prepare for schools reopening

BOE Chair Catherine Payne said the resolution “considers the feedback from board members at our last meeting as well as the questions and concerns from the public.”

The resolution approved Thursday has four main priorities, Payne said, “Health and safety of our students and staff, students who are most vulnerable to school closures and disruptions to learning, in-person instruction and student access to devices and connectivity.”

The superintendent will provide the board with a comprehensive plan and monthly reports with metrics to track the four priorities, Payne said.

BOE member Dwight Takeno successfully proposed an amendment to the resolution, because he said, “Health and safety requirements are not flexible and cannot be compromised to protect our students and staff.”

Board members approved adding the term “sufficiently detailed” to guidance so it now says: “Specific and sufficiently detailed school-level requirements for ensuring clean and sanitary facilities and the health and safety of students and school personnel, as directed by Department of Health guidance.”

Takeno told fellow BOE members, “If any school is unable to ensure that these requirements are strictly met, there should be guidance by the DOE, procedures to revert to distance learning at any given time until the situation is properly remediated, thus a comprehensive distance learning plan at each school as a primary safety net.”

BOE member Maggie Cox said the HIDOE needs to be “very clear what is guidance and what is mandatory because schools are going to have flexibility. So they’re going to have to know where the flexibility lies.”

School districts across the country have struggled to work out the details of reopening schools, according to the news website Politico.

Behavioral health experts say trauma-informed care needed for educators and students

Paul Solomon, a behavioral health supervisor at the HIDOE, also testified during the BOE meeting. “We are all going through collective trauma when a group of people experiences a shared event,” such as a pandemic, he said.

“We really need to consider the emotional and psychological needs of both the adults who work in our schools and the children. Everybody needs to not only be safe physically, but everybody needs to feel safe,” Solomon said. “For children to learn, they must feel safe. For teachers and professionals to teach and provide children what they need, they need to feel safe.

“If we’re not ready by Aug. 3, let’s take the extra time, if it’s a few days or a week,” to make sure everything is ready, Solomon said.

Those concerns were echoed by Dr. Genesis Young, director of the Network for Non-Violent Communication, which works in schools to bring trauma-informed and restorative justice points of view to students.

“Students cannot learn when they are distressed, and teachers cannot teach when they are in this kind of stress,” Young said, noting that extra time is needed to address the psychological needs of staff and students.

“I believe you need a good week of preparation with the staff and at least a couple of weeks focusing on psychological needs of the students when they first come back. Otherwise, you’ll have more behavioral problems, more conflict, more issues, and less learning,” Young said.

Kishimoto responded that the comments about trauma-informed care and how the department welcomes students back are “extremely important.”

“We know the first few weeks of school are going to be extremely important to monitoring very carefully how our students are doing,” Kishimoto said.

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Author: Keoki Kerr