Friday, June 5, 2020

HSTA raises concerns about HIDOE school reopening guidelines

BOE members acknowledge communication problems

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The president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association said Thursday the Hawaii State Department of Education failed to consult the union before releasing a one-page flyer called “Guidance for Reopening Schools” this week, part of reopening planning by the HIDOE that one media outlet called “piecemeal and scattered.”

During testimony Thursday before the Board of Education, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “In the past, when the HSTA, the Board of Education and the Department of Education work together, we provide the best policy and outcomes for our students and our schools.

“This week, the Department of Education released the ‘Guidance for Reopening Schools.’ HSTA was not consulted and did not agree to these policies, even though teachers will be the ones most likely being forced to implement these policies,” Rosenlee said. “We have many questions and concerns.”

BOE Chair Catherine Payne said the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was to hear feedback to “understand the expectations, questions, and concerns that its members, education stakeholders, and the public have about reopening schools and providing a quality education for students while living the threat of COVID-19.”

Rosenlee told board members, “The first issue is that anything that impacts our teachers should be collectively bargained.

“The Department of Education indicates guidance is from the (state) Department of Health, but that information has not been shared with HSTA,” Rosenlee said.

Responding to questions from board members about whether unions have been consulted, Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said, “HSTA, HGEA and UPW, we’ve been meeting with them on a weekly basis. So it’s not accurate that they have not been engaged.” 

HSTA has been very engaged with HIDOE officials, but the department has repeatedly made announcements or released new policies such as the guidance this week without giving union leaders a heads up or the chance to review the final documents and offer feedback before they are unveiled.

Andrea Eshelman, HSTA’s chief negotiator and deputy executive director, has met once or twice a week with HIDOE deputy and assistant superintendents to go over various proposals and plans since the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting our state in March.

Kishimoto said, “Andrea Eshelman has been a fantastic partner at the table with us every single week from HSTA, and she has been a tremendous voice in every decision we have made, and even helped us write up some of the things that we put together during quarter four. So I really thank her. But I also thank the leaders of HGEA and UPW as well.”

Rosenlee raises questions about school reopening health guidelines

The guidance document released by the HIDOE earlier this week says that students must maintain a distance of three feet between seats or group tables, contradicting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that people should remain six feet away from each other to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Rosenlee said, “If we open our schools and do not maintain social distancing, we will face the same problems such as South Korea and Israel. They quickly had to close schools after a rash of cases,” when the schools reopened after the pandemic’s first outbreak eased.

“I try to think about what would happen at my own school at Campbell (High) if we don’t do social distancing. We have over 3,000 students on that campus. In my own classroom, I had 40 students. So we’re going to have to find a way to do blended learning,” Rosenlee added.

Rosenlee also raised questions about face masks.

“As a teacher, I can tell you it was very difficult just to keep our students to keep wearing dress tops,” for their uniforms at Campbell, he said. “What’s going to happen if a student doesn’t have a face mask? What happens if a teacher doesn’t have a face mask? Will face masks be provided to teachers and students?”

On June 1, HIDOE 12-month and resource teachers had to report back to work.

“HSTA has already received reports with concerns about cleanliness and availability of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer. If these problems are occurring now, when we only have a few people on campus, what’s going to happen when we have thousands of people on campus?” Rosenlee asked.

The joint recommendations of the HIDOE and the DOH, which the flyer said will be effective July 1, said all bathrooms should be checked to ensure soap is available or hand sanitizer is provided.

“I can tell you being around schools for years that I’ve often seen bathrooms without even hand soap. So this brings up concerns,” Rosenlee said. “Throughout all of this, we’ve got to really appreciate how much we’re asking of our custodial staff.”

BOE member Kenneth Uemura asked Kishimoto, “Will the release of your guidance lay the groundwork for more confusion since you have no way of knowing what the board guidance is regarding the reopening of schools? Why confuse the public by doing it piecemeal like this when you don’t have board policy on it?”

"I did my due diligence,” Kishimoto told Uemura. “That one-pager is (state) Department of Health guidance to us.”

Kishimoto described DOH guidelines as “basically guardrails within which we must act.”

“We just have to meet that minimum guidance,” she added.

Uemura called the flyer “misleading,” because “you don’t say that we’re just relaying the recommendations from the Department of Health, so it’s confusing in that sense.”

BOE member Bruce Voss said, “The conceptional guidelines issued this week were a good start. I understood them myself to be a way to start the conversation.”

“Other jurisdictions have released 40- to 50-page documents about school reopening,” compared to the HIDOE’s one-page DOH guidance released this week, Uemura said.

Addressing the HIDOE’s reopening plan that’s being formulated, Kishimoto said, “Right now, we have 30 pages of reopening schools outlines guidance document already written up. The principals and CASs (complex area superintendents) and assistant superintendents have been meeting.”

HSTA has requested a copy of the working copy of the HIDOE's reopening guidance document after learning about it from Kishimoto's Thursday testimony.

Educators, parents, and advocates testify on school reopening concerns

Parents and educators submitted more than 100 pages of written testimony about the BOE’s reopening framework, and several teachers and education advocates offered live testimony at the virtual meeting on the Webex conferencing platform.

Robin O’Hara, a teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate, addressed the board from Hawaii Island.

“Our union is doing a fantastic job about providing you with feedback and also questions about this whole process,” O’Hara said.

“We have different issues on different campuses, so I’m not sure how it would be able to implement all of these protocols when have problems like we are on our fifth principal as of Monday and I don’t know who our principal is going to be before the school year starts, so we can’t even plan for things,” O’Hara added.

“We’ve had consistent problems with custodians for many years where we very rarely have a full staff of custodians on a daily basis and often can’t even find subs so we don’t get regular cleaning happening, and I don’t think that’s very safe right now under the circumstances,” she said.

“I didn’t sign up to put my life in jeopardy to teach children. I signed up to teach children,” O’Hara said. “Without us having a specific vaccine or cure for this, what are you asking us to do? Are you saying our lives are expendable? Because once we open up to interisland and we open up to tourists, we’re going to be at risk for exposure.”

Mireille Ellsworth teaches English at Waiakea High in Hilo. She’s worried about how some of these recommendations will be carried out.

“I can’t even get my kids to take their hats off, which is a rule, and now we want to ask them to either wear masks or not wear masks or whatever,” Ellsworth testified to BOE members.

“If we ask kids to be eating in the classrooms, this is going to take away time from teachers for their duty-free lunch, because we are going to be ending up cleaning up after the kids,” Ellsworth said. “There’s just no way that there’s going to be time for us to go use the bathroom. What am I going to do, leave my kids unsupervised? That just doesn’t even make sense.”

Julie Reyes Oda, a math teacher at Nanakuli High and Intermediate shared this advice to the BOE via Webex: “Don’t leave all the hard decisions to the schools where it’s dropped on the principals to make do. We need a message from the DOE and BOE about what we should be doing. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and the state and complexes should be visible in helping the schools.”

Cheri Nakamura, director of the HEʻE (Hui for Excellence in Education) Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes public education in Hawaii, said the HIDOE needs to finalize its plans soon.

“There is urgency in providing direction to the schools. We’ve heard from administrators that they are patiently waiting for specific guidance,” Nakamura testified. “They are also hoping that critical supports from the state office will be provided to help them get through this extremely difficult and complicated time.”

BOE chair: HIDOE’s ‘communication has confused the field’

Payne, a longtime Hawaii educator who was a principal and complex area superintendent, said, “It is important to acknowledge the hard work and commitment reflected in everything I read and everyone with whom I speak. But I also know from testimony and communications I have personally received that there is still a lack of clarity for many at all levels of our organization.

“Some of this is due to the reality that things are moving so fast that by the time an issue is addressed, the context in which it arose has changed. This will likely continue,” Payne added.

“I also want to reassure individuals with specific and personal concerns that many of these can be worked out with principals and CASs through policies and procedures that the board and the department already have in place,” she said.

BOE member Dwight Takeno asked about “all this discussion and confusion and uncertainty as to whether or not grades six to 12 would be online or face-to-face, hybrid.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, several news outlets reported that Kishimoto was planning possible virtual instruction for grades six to 12 when school starts Aug. 4. Reporters had been invited to listen to a webinar presentation Kishimoto gave to some parents Tuesday afternoon. Educators across the state, including teachers and principals, were surprised to hear the news about her potential plans and had not participated in the webinars.

“How was that communicated and why was that communicated when we were going to have this discussion here Thursday?” Takeno asked.

Payne acknowledged that the HIDOE’s “communication has confused the field and clearly some board members because it feels premature.”

In response to Takeno’s questions, Kishimoto said, “There will be continued confusion and we will do everything possible to reduce confusion to the greatest extent possible. These are times when we are leading in crisis, and information is fast changing.”

“I have made myself continuously available to any media outlet that wants to talk to me about the conversations we are having,” Kishimoto added. “All of the presentations I’ve done to the media outlets have not been definitive. They’ve always been in the context of these are the things that the tri-level leadership is having discussions around so that the public could know.”

HIDOE held COVID webinars this week, answered questions about reopening, but HSTA wasn't invited

Kishimoto said she conducted four webinars this week, the first for what she called “internal staff” on Monday, parents, and some media on Tuesday, legislative leaders, and board members on Wednesday, while she briefed business and industry and nonprofit leaders Thursday before the BOE meeting.

“I’ll continue to have these kinds of presentations of where we are and where we’re headed,” she said.

“Aug. 4 has continuously been mentioned directly by me, because we have not changed the calendar for next school year,” Kishimoto told the board. “I have positioned myself to protect the 180 instructional days next school year to the greatest extent possible, knowing we are still subject to a final budget from the Legislature.

“We’re not going to be able to have holistic guidance on everything all at once. We’re going to be releasing components of this as decisions are made, and push information out as quickly as possible,” Kishimoto said. “I do understand the anxiety around all of this, and everyone wanting to continue to have a voice and they will.

“On Monday, the principals are going from the holistic look that they’ve already submitted via the complex area superintendents about their ideas of school reopening into grade-level based teams, where the principals are going to talk based on their grade level. So elementary principals are meeting together, middle schools together, and then high schools together,” said Kishimoto, “and they will be looking at several models per grade level, that make sense based on not only Department of Health guidance, but what makes sense based on their own schools, their own complex, the needs in their communities, how this last fourth quarter went.”

Kishimoto said the HIDOE’s reopening survey of educators had a “great response rate.”

The HIDOE also has surveys of secondary students, principals, and parents in the field. “In the first 24 hours, we had 4,000 unique pieces of feedback received in the parent survey,” Kishimoto said. “I’m thrilled that we have all this feedback that the leadership team is going through.”

The HSTA also launched a survey for members Monday that logged more than 3,000 responses in the first four days.

What states' plans and models are HIDOE officials using to prepare Hawaii's school reopening?

“There are a number of models we’re looking at as well. AEI (American Enterprise Institute) has a national model for school reopening, Hanover (Hanover Research's Education Solutions), CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers), of which I’m a board member, which has feedback from 50 different states, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Guam, Puerto Rico. They all have shared a school reopening guidance document. We meet twice a week. We just met this morning, continuing to share what each state is doing,” Kishimoto explained.

“We also have in front of us the Iowa and the Michigan plans. There’s an Arizona plan that we are going through that was recently released. So we go through all the national and state plans, and we use that for guidance,” she said.

Takeno, a BOE member and former HSTA chief negotiator who now serves as associate executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA), said the board needs to “provide some sort of level of comfort to students as well as staff, that we’re doing the best we can to provide a safe and healthy learning and working environment. I think (that) would speak volumes as to how much they would be willing to engage and participate.”

Payne summed things up by saying, “My top priority is always safety. I think that has to be number one. And I agree the second priority is the students are at most risk of falling even further behind and further marginalized because I think that will be at great cost to our society later on.

“We do have to be prepared for a range of options for kids, so it doesn’t make it so difficult to pivot,” because, she said, “I think we will have a spike after we reopen to tourists.”

And finally, Payne said it’s important to focus on “how are we taking care of our staff so that they can take care of our students, because I think there is so much anxiety out there and we have to figure out a way to respond to that because however they do is how we do as a system.”

After Thursday’s BOE meeting, Rosenlee said, “Throughout all the planning, you cannot ignore and we have to take into consideration the human factor. Our teachers cannot be expected to do everything, buy everything, and not be given the time and the resources that they need.

“Your teachers are stressed and they need guidance and help. HSTA has always been a willing partner to solve problems,” he added.

“We are here to help, and hope the voices of teachers will be valued and listened to,” Rosenlee concluded.

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Author: Keoki Kerr