In the day since the Hawaii State Teachers Association called out the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) for its plans to bring thousands of students back to campuses Monday during a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, many principals and complex area superintendents have drastically changed their approach, opting for grab-and-go arrangements to keep the number of students on campuses much lower than originally planned.

“The best thing to do right now is to make sure that on Monday, we’re not exposing our teachers and children to situations that put them at risk,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee.

“HSTA appreciates the hard work that the principals and complex area superintendents do trying to protect the health and safety of our keiki,” Rosenlee added. “We thank our front-line teachers for raising their concerns to those administrators in person, at faculty meetings, through APCs (HSTA Association Policy Committees) and elsewhere to bring about many more prudent schedule changes.”

Here’s a summary of the last-minute changes made:

  • On Thursday, educators at Waipahu High School complained about an unsafe plan. One teacher explained, “each group of roughly 700 students will come in on one of the four days to see all their teachers and classes.” First thing Friday morning, the principal held a faculty meeting and announced that those plans were scrapped and there would be distance learning only starting Tuesday, with only fully self-contained special education students on campus. Friday and Monday are being devoted to calling families to inform them of the changes.
  • Waianae High School made the call early Thursday afternoon to change plans from bringing about 1,000 students onto campus in staggered groups for an hour and a half each day next week. Instead, only students who needed help adjusting to distance learning would return to campus Monday, but the school is still offering risky three-hour training sessions for them.
  • On Hawaii Island, Keaau High dropped plans for in-person, on-campus instruction and plans drive-by and grab-and-go pickup of distance learning materials starting Monday.
  • An Ewa Makai Middle educator posted on social media Thursday afternoon, “Our admin just decided this afternoon at 2, that we will scrap our previous plans & opt for a grab n go/drive thru laptop pickup. Until today, our plan was to have students come on their A/B days. For a GenEd teacher like me, that would’ve meant seeing 12 kids per period for one hour each, total of 3 periods a day plus homeroom. That would’ve meant 120+ students that I’d have interacted w/ by the end of the week. Thankful my admin made that call between our HSTA press conference & the Gov’s press conference.”
  • A teacher reported that the “principal at Washington Middle School announced we would shift to 100% virtual learning through the end of Q1, with the choice to work remotely. Our previous plan as of yesterday was to bring all students twice next week in 4 groups for 2 hrs apiece. Students would have been in their homeroom only for a total of 4 hrs over the course of the week. Now no one is coming for f2f (face to face) instruction. We are beyond thrilled that he chose to change these plans to protect everyone related to our campus.”
  • A Fern Elementary educator wrote, “Originally we’re going to meet with small groups of students for 1.5 hours to set up tech and do simple dl (distance learning) training. But our teachers had concerns since there’s been many cases in our immediate community. They brought it up to our admin who made the decision to cancel that. We will now be doing a drive-by materials pick up.”
  • Nimitz Elementary originally planned to meet with students in small groups for three hours at a time, but Friday, its principal announced that the school would offer grab-and-go service so students and parents could pick up distance learning materials.
  • Even on Molokai, which has no current COVID-19 cases and where only two people have gotten the disease since late Februrary, Molokai High, Molokai Middle, and Kaunakakai Elementary shifted late Friday to distance learning on Monday, when they were originally scheduled to bring all students back for in-person instruction.
  • All Farrington complex schools found out Thursday afternoon about changes that they will not meet students face-to-face next week except for special education, English learners and vulnerable students.

While HSTA appreciates the progress that’s been made to make next week safer for everyone, some schools are still bringing in fully self-contained (FSC) students with special needs for face-to-face instruction.

“HSTA still has concerns about how the Department of Education is defining ‘vulnerable students,’ and we’ve heard from many FSC teachers across the state who are deeply concerned about having many adults and children confined into a single classroom,” Rosenlee added, because often teachers, educational assistants, nurses, and other staff are in the same room with students.

HSTA Vice President Osa Tui Jr. said, “When it's being universally announced that we need to limit gatherings, why do students with special needs have to leave their actual ohana bubbles and risk exposure? COVID-19 does not discriminate and will attack anyone, especially the vulnerable. It's not a pandemic just for the regular education students.”

So many schools have changed their schedules in the last day and a half that attorney Eric Seitz, who independently threatened to sue the state on behalf of special education students and teachers, said, “It appears that most if not all of the schools have made accommodations so that there aren’t huge numbers of kids who are coming to campus on Monday.

“I’m somewhat disappointed that the superintendent has consistently taken this very combative stance and she won’t even talk to us. She basically dares us to come to the brink and it would be much nicer if we had some way to communicate to discuss these matters of mutual interest without having to talk about lawsuits,” Seitz added.

HSTA is still pursuing legal action which includes filing a prohibited practice complaint and petition for declaratory order and injunctive relief with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. We also plan to file a class grievance early next week.

Some principals are telling staff they can't change their plans because they've already been announced to the public. But since there's a pandemic and a huge increase of cases, and therefore a much higher risk in our state compared to even two weeks ago, we don't think the public and families would mind.

In one troubling example, teachers at Kanoelani Elementary reported parent orientations being held Monday and Tuesday in two blocks of 150 students each with the first block from 8 to 9:30 a.m. and the second block from 10 to 11:30 am. Educators said 43 special education students will be on campus daily.

The HSTA is grateful to the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) for emailing its Oahu members Thursday urging department heads and supervisors to limit the physical presence of employees wherever possible to protect employees and the public, and to limit the spread of COVID-19. HGEA represents principals, vice principals, and other administrators such as athletic directors.

“This should be done as quickly as possible,” HGEA wrote in a post. “Employees who are able to telework should be promptly given that opportunity.

“This pandemic is clearly not going away anytime soon and government must move quickly to protect employees and the public while still providing all of the essential services that our community depends on. We must adapt government to provide services remotely where possible during the pandemic,” HGEA said.