Senators grill superintendent on teacher telework, PPE

Lawmakers have asked the state auditor to probe campus COVID notification process

During a Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, state senators pressed Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto about why more teachers aren’t allowed to telework when students are learning from home, and why educators are spending their own money for protective gear.

Senators also disclosed a probe by the state auditor about the Hawaii State Department of Education’s notification policies when confirmed coronavirus cases are connected to public school campuses.

Watch the full briefing here, courtesy of Olelo Community Media.

State Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani Town, Waikele, Village Park), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told Kishimoto, “Many of us have been getting lots of emails from teachers who are saying that they’re teaching virtually, but yet they’re not allowed to telework and teach from home.

“Why is the mandate that if they’re teleworking and they’re teaching virtually and their students are not in the classroom, why do they have to be in the classroom?” Kidani asked.

Kishimoto said, “Right now we have all of the resources including technology supports, staff, in the schools, and so it’s a hub for teachers to work from with everything that they need for teaching. Principals need to be able to see that in fact—in the fourth quarter, senator, we know that it was a hit or miss because we were not ready for distance learning.

“We are just new at distance learning, and we’ve been standing some things up, but we haven’t even tested this out. This is going to be the first time, these next few weeks, that we know how well this is happening, and so principals need to be able to have the time to work with their teachers, support them, and be able to make decisions about the telework system to make sure that, again, we don’t have this break in instruction,” Kishimoto added.

Kidani responded, “I understand what you’re saying, but we’re hearing that it’s your mandate that if they’re teaching even virtually that they have to be at school.

“If a teacher who can telework and teach virtually is not allowed to do so, and is being told to take COVID leave or sick leave or family leave, whatever, you’re now forcing the principal to bring on a substitute teacher who may not be trained,” Kidani told Kishimoto.

Educators have told the Hawaii State Teachers Association that some principals had allowed some or all teachers at certain schools to telework for the first four weeks of the school year, but they were overruled by the complex area superintendent, who oversees principals and all schools in a wide area.

Earlier in Wednesday’s briefing, senators asked Ryker Wada, director of the state Department of Human Resources Development (DHRD), about telework allowances for state employees during the pandemic.

At the beginning of the virus outbreak in March, Wada said, “The executive branch pushed everyone to telework as much as possible,” adding that “the implementation is up to the individual departments.”

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Mililani Mauka, Waipio Acres, Wahiawa) raised concerns about principals and complex area superintendents doing different things about telework at public schools.

“The principals are left to their own devices. Each complex superintendent doesn’t seem to have the guidance from the superintendent and the Board of Education,” Dela Cruz said.  

“It’s almost as though it’s just chaos. That every department is left to their own. There’s no consistency,” he added.

Wada responded, “It (telework) is our policy. There’s absolutely no way there can be a wholesale, one implementation for each department. ... It's based on individual employees.”

Dela Cruz said, “You can’t have a thousand ways to do this. You have to come up with three or four options, five.”

“PUC (the Public Utilities Commission) hasn’t been in the office since March. Aquatic Resources hasn’t been in the office since March. Yet other departments are telling me, eh, they’re being forced to come in, and nobody knows why. There has to be some consistency so we can explain these actions,” Dela Cruz said.

Wada told senators, “DHRD is encouraging everyone to telework as much as possible as a health and safety matter. I can’t make the determination for a department.

“We have a policy, we have the guidelines and we have the standards by which the telework policy has to be implemented,” Wada added.

One senator says none of the schools in his Ewa district have enough PPE

State Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach, Ewa by Gentry, Iroquois Point) told Kishimoto that, “The schools in my district, none of them have enough, none of them have enough (PPE).

“I know the DOE is not a distributor, but that should have been part of your plan before we even had teachers in consideration and coming to school, custodians, and kids. Your plan was supposed to prepare, putting up these shields, having the shields ready, everything before anybody touched the ground to go to school,” Fevella said. 

Kishimoto responded, “We have continued to adjust the availability of PPEs based on continued changes in guidance and also feedback from the field. What we had talked about in the summer was standing up the preparation for the start of school, and we’ve been working and we’ve had several meetings with the public and the board (Board of Education) where we talked about standard settings so that it was clearer how much PPE was at each school, exactly your question. And in working with HI-EMA (Hawaii Emergency Management Agency), Gen. Hara (HI-EMA Director Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara) and I had a direct conversation around what is the right standard for each school? And we talked about the fact that each school should really ideally have three-months supply. That’s when we adjusted the chart that we were creating for principals to report what they need in order to meet that standard so we can identify where the gap is.

“This has been a learning process, because we’ve been clear that we are not going to open up schools without PPEs and what’s needed to open up the school, but the standard setting is work that we’ve been doing in the last few weeks because we realized the standard setting had to be clearer so the schools understood that what they received was for X amount of time and for specific purposes,” Kishimoto said.

“Every school had PPE before they reopened, but they did not have three-months supply. That is a standard we are normalizing to, and certainly we can provide the metrics for that three-months supply standard and what that means in terms of the number of staff and the number of students per those PPE types,” Kishimoto said.

Kidani, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, responded, “I’m telling you that we have heard that like SPED (special education) teachers didn’t have gowns. They had to go out and get their own. So I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page, and I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying maybe they didn’t get it in time. I hope they have it now.”

State auditor probing HIDOE COVID-19 campus, community notifications, which have been infrequent and vague

Senators also asked the superintendent why HIDOE is releasing vague complex-area notifications of COVID-19 cases connected to public schools, without announcing the actual school campuses involved.

Kidani, who represents the Mililani area, said a complex area notification is not helpful for parents and the community.

“For an area from Mililani to the North Shore to be all worried that someone in their community was COVID-19 positive when you can identify the school. You don't have to identify the type. You could say a student. You could say a teacher. You could say administration, staff. You don’t have to identify the type of job to be that specific, because I do agree, HIPAA, FERPA (privacy laws). But that does not violate because DOH (Department of Health) has named the bars singly when they had (cases). I’m just saying it creates a lot of worry in the community for no purpose if you do not go down to the school level,” Kidani said.

Kishimoto responded, saying, “Senator, we’re working on this and just trying to get as much guidance as possible to do this right. So I would say we’re stepping through, making sure we do this right, and that we are clear about what DOH is reporting and what we are reporting.”

After the HSTA pointed out HIDOE's lack of transparency in announcing school cases last week, the department started weekly complex-level reporting on Fridays.

Kim revealed that senators have asked the state auditor’s office to put together reports for lawmakers regarding HIDOE policies and procedures when an employee or student at a school facility is COVID-19 positive. State Auditor Les Kondo and several staff members will meet with HSTA leaders this week as part of the probe.

Kim said the auditor has “asked a number of times to meet with the pertinent people (at HIDOE) and yet nobody's been provided to him. Can we request that DOE be a little more responsive to responding so that we can get this information and you don’t have to come before us like you are right now to tell us this?”

Kishimoto said HIDOE needed to concentrate on schools reopening this week, along with Wednesday’s Senate briefing and a Board of Education meeting scheduled for Thursday during which she said she and her team would answer 36 pages of questions.

“What we’ve indicated to him is we will absolutely have a team ready to meet with him that he can interview anytime next week. We just needed to get through these four days of very multilayered rollout of instruction,” Kishimoto told the senators.

Kim responded by saying, “A lot of these questions we’ve been asking now for a while, and we’ve come to a point where we’ve asked the help from the auditor, because we have also not been getting information as well.”

Fevella also asked Kishimoto the same question HSTA has been asking the department for months.

“How many adults have to get contact with the virus for a school to close? How many students have to test positive for a school to close? How many students in complex, district, or island for schools to close? What is the procedure for that?” Fevella asked.

“Right now we have a process for shutting down a school and reopening, but there are not defined triggers from DOH yet. The governor has asked DOH to work on those. Actually the reason I’m actually getting off of this call at 4 o’clock is I have an internal team of teachers and principals and some other employees who are meeting with DOH on their proposed triggers so that DOH gets feedback from internal staff members before they finalize the triggers for schools specifically,” Kishimoto said.

 “My understanding is that they are supposed to be rolling out a broader statewide plan, not just for education, but we’re giving input on the education side based on what we’ve learned from other states and also based on what DOH is going to be proposing to us,” Kishimoto said.

Author: Keoki Kerr