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Principals, EAs, and others join teachers calling for more time before students return to campus

Overwhelming testimony ahead of Thursday's BOE meeting supports students’ delayed return to campus

School administrators across the state joined teachers, parents, and others submitting nearly 4,000 pages of testimony to the Hawaii State Board of Education (BOE) by Wednesday evening, calling for the state to delay bringing students back to public school campuses on Aug. 4.

The Board is holding a general meeting on Thursday, July 23, at 1:30 p.m. Click here for information on how to listen in live.

Testimony centered on two issues: the reopening of school buildings and a potential freeze on shortage differentials for teachers. You can read through the submissions here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4.

Earlier this week, HSTA urged the State of Hawaii and BOE to delay the opening of school buildings to students to allow the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) and Department of Health (DOH) more time to properly create and implement health strategies to minimize the spread of COVID-19, as well as provide schools more time to prepare educators for an online environment.

James Sunday, Radford High principal, submitted testimony to the BOE that said, “Although we are expected to be ‘good soldiers’ who follow directives, we can not in good conscience move forward without expressing the concerns we continue to have in regards to reopening our schools. The depth of these concerns keep us up at night as we hold the health and safety of our individual communities in our hands.”

Among the many unresolved issues Sunday listed:

  • Staff has not received appropriate training in COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting protocols,
  • School health aides do not have written guidance from the DOH,
  • There is a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, and signage,
  • There is a shortage of devices to ensure equitable online access for all students, and
  • Parents do not have an official form to request distance learning.

“As administrators, we are making every effort to make this a reality, but feel that the reopening of schools on Aug. 4 is being forced onto us with minimal support and answers,” Sunday concluded.

Diane Spencer, principal at Konawaena Elementary on Hawaii Island, provided devastating written testimony to the BOE.

“I do not feel like we are prepared to open,” Spencer wrote. “Many of my safety items have not come in and my students are in the same situation as they were in quarter 4 with no devices and no connectivity.

“I have three custodians to clean my school of 550. They had a 12-minute video training. They are asking for help. My additional purchase of a .5 (part-time) custodian sits on (the) superintendent's desk waiting for approval,” she said.

“Teachers are filing for CARES Act leave. I have little idea of who will be on my campus on Aug. 4 with no substitutes trained and ready to jump in. I want to open schools. I think, however, that we need time to truly prepare for a safe return and how to do blended learning,” Spencer added.

“School administrators have been left to figure everything out by themselves and compete for PPEs with other schools. We need directives, not choices, during a pandemic. We need a reality check if anyone thinks that schools are truly prepared,” she concluded.

Marlene Leary, Kauai High School principal, wrote that despite faculty and staff working harder than ever, “my biggest concern is the ability to ensure the health and safety of our students, the staff, and our Kauai community once school is open. Based on the lack of safety supplies and the need for further staff development, we are not able to open in a manner that is safe.

“Adjustments have been made to our administrative opening days to allow for more COVID-19 health and safety training. However, it allows for little professional development for those two days. The first four days before students start is not sufficient to get all our teachers ready for the new change in instructional delivery,” Leary wrote.

“Back in March when this pandemic started, the Department asked schools to submit the numbers needed for PPE and cleaning supplies for three months. In late April, we were told they had not been ordered. We scrambled to purchase our own, but have not received our full orders of hand sanitizers, cleaning dispensers, PPE, etc.,” Leary added. “In order to reopen the school in a safe manner, it is crucial we have these items. We are not prepared to provide a safe learning environment for our students and staff that is being promised and messaged to our stakeholders by the state and department.”

Sue Forbes, principal at Kahului Elementary School on Maui, said she had “serious concerns” regarding her school’s reopening.

“With the addition just last Friday (July 17) of 100% distance learning as an option for elementary schools, we were left with only 10 workdays to complete the tasks listed below before 950+ students start school on August 4. This is completely unrealistic,” Forbes wrote.

Forbes said the school must now survey all parents, redo class lists, set up distance learning classrooms, reassign teachers, notify parents, and modify breakfast and lunch service.

“These are the details you are unlikely to hear from Superintendent Kishimoto. But this is our reality,” Forbes said.

Administrators from the Hilo-Waiakea Complex on Hawaii Island wrote a three-and-a-half page submission to the BOE, listing detailed safety and health concerns, a lack of PPE and online devices, training promised that hasn't been provided, areas where they need guidance, as well as questions and issues about food service, student transportation, and substitutes.

Principals are members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which joined the Hawaii State Teachers Association and United Public Workers unions Wednesday in calling for a delay in the scheduled return of students to campus.

SASAs, EAs also say they're not prepared

Other HGEA members wrote the BOE, asking the board and the Hawaii Department of Education to delay bringing students back to class for various health and safety reasons.

An educational assistant for 22 years, Alene Sandry expressed concerns of many fellow EAs.

Sandry said, “During this uncertain time, I don’t feel comfortable returning back to work not knowing if the safety and protocol training planned for EAs” will be thorough enough.

“EAs aren’t sure if they’ll be working in more than one cohort/bubble upon returning to campus,” she said.

“Please take into consideration that EAs support many teachers and students on campus throughout the day and feel it is only fair to be well trained and informed before students begin,” Sandry said.

Maribel Perez wrote, “As an EA, I haven’t gotten trained on anything and don’t feel safe nor ready to open schools up Aug. 4.

“It’s not okay to open just like that and employees not know what to do in an emergency,” Perez said.

Vanessa Escajeda, the school administrative services assistant (SASA) at Maemae Elementary, praised her dedicated fellow staff members and principal.

But she reported that “just a few days ago, we were blindsided by an email from a parent that we must offer a distance learning (DL) plan. I understand the need, but we are not ready to present a DL plan to our families nor are we ready to field all the questions that parents will rightfully have. Maemae is an exemplary school, but are simply not ready.

“At a minimum, we would need a few weeks to work with our teachers and other support staff to prepare classrooms, receive proper training, revise procedures/protocols, and communicate to our parents more detailed plans to prepare for the return of our students. A delayed opening for students will also provide ample time for parents to make an informed decision whether to opt for DL or send their children to school with the understanding of our new procedures and expectations,” Escajeda added.

Liz Ho, administrator for UPW, which represents approximately 2,000 employees tasked with keeping schools clean and maintained, along with additional school-based employees, wrote that “UPW AFSCME Local 646 attended multiple meetings with the HIDOE personnel to seek answers, yet no comprehensive plan was ever brought forward that would quell the concerns of our members.”

Ho said the Department referenced two manuals. One titled “HIDOE Emergency Operations Plan” was more than 300 pages long and yet, Ho noted, “only two (2) pages are related to a pandemic flu.”

The second manual, titled “HIDOE Pandemic Contagious Plan,” was presented to the union nearly two weeks before the planned reopening of schools. “The HIDOE employees within Bargaining Units 1 & 10 were never presented with this material and were never provided any kind of specialized training to ensure that our schools are properly sanitized, putting everyone including the students and other essential staff at risk of contracting COVID-19,” Ho wrote.

Teachers submit thousands of pages of testimony calling for a delay in students' return

Hundreds of teachers from around the state submitted testimony with similar concerns.

Theresa Haberstroh is the parent of two students at Kalama Intermediate and a fourth-grade teacher at Haiku Elementary on Maui since 2002. 

“This year there has been no guidance from the DOE on how we can safely open our schools. It has been left to schools to decide, and my own school and my children's school both have new principals, which brings a whole new situation to the table,” Haberstoh wrote.

“As one of the first districts in the country to return to school, four days are absolutely insufficient to help us make our safest, best-informed decisions and plans to keep all school stakeholders safe. I, along with many parents, staff, educators, implore you to delay the start of school in the way of the status quo. We teachers and staff can go back to work on August 4, but please give us more time to make the safest and best decisions to open schools safely,” she said.

“Allow us the time to put procedures in place that shopping malls, restaurants, and gyms have been allowed to do. We need more training, time for our input, and respect of our opinions to prevent the spread, illnesses, and death due to COVID-19. Give us the time to do this without having to scramble with guesswork and no guidelines,” Haberstroh added.

Kaleolani Hanohano, a social studies teacher at Kahuku High, submitted testimony that said, “With mutual respect, deep and unwavering aloha for all of you and our Hawaii, please make sure that PPE, free COVID testing and universal access to technology is in place.

“Please do not send our children into the path of infection and have them bring it home to our kupuna. This is genocide by proxy! Using our keiki through unified education theory to prop economic stability as the gise to leading COVID into our homes is evil,” Hanohano said.

Honokaa High and Intermediate teacher Alison English told the BOE that “July has been the worst on record for our state, with cases rising daily. So many of our keiki live in extended family homes with vulnerable kupuna in their homes. We need strict precautions.

“We have the highest number of multigenerational families in the nation. We released prisoners over concerns of COVID when the numbers were much lower. Now we are going to rush to send keiki back to school as numbers rise? That makes no sense!” English said.

Kalina Mead was a fourth-grade teacher at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School who had transitioned into a new role as literacy coach. “After the meetings I've been in this week regarding distance learning and what we will be doing, personally I do not have much trust or confidence that it is going to go well after the things I heard,” she wrote.

Mead said she began to experience anxiety attacks and insomnia.

“None of the higher-up people making these plans have truly gotten their hands dirty and have looked at this from a teacher's perspective, in a realistic approach to how we are actually going to make this happen,” Mead said. “There is a whole lot of talk behind closed doors, but do they realize what will actually be happening in our classrooms and to our students on their computers at home? Teachers are leaving. Families and students are leaving.

“Today I, myself, submitted Form 4140 to my school to withdraw my children. I am taking a leave of absence, and I will homeschool my own kids, because not only are teachers not prepared for the blended learning model, even the 100-percent distance learning option will be a disaster,” she concluded.

On Tuesday, HSTA teacher leaders held a news conference calling on the state to delay bringing students back to classes next month, giving staff more time learn about safety protocols and plan for potential distance learning.

Parents express concern about sending students back to school Aug. 4

Parents also pleaded with the BOE to delay the return of their children to school campuses.

Daniel Schuster, father of two sons in public schools, said, “I believe that we are not ready to open schools because there is no plan.”

Schuster said, “the schools are just being rushed to open for other reasons and not the safety of the children, teachers, office administration and all that works at each school.

“I really would like to say please push back the opening till the schools have a solid plan,” he added.

Donna Nunes said, “As much as I’d like to see my son start school, I’m in favor of delaying the reopening in hopes that COVID cases will decline by then.

“Teachers feel like they are not ready is a great concern. Delay for another month then hopefully schools can reopen more prepared,” Nunes said.

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