Critics say department doesn’t give ‘much or any guidance to schools’ amid surge

The Hawaii Board of Education (BOE) Thursday called for the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) to share specific guidance and parameters with Hawaii public school staff and school communities as to when schools will need to move to distance learning because of high COVID-19 case counts on campus. The board said missing guidelines from the department have led to confusion, frustration and anger amongst educators, students and their families.

During the board’s general business meeting, interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said that each school has a contingency plan in place to facilitate the transition to distance learning if needed. He said the school looks at whether or not there’s enough staff to run the school, what supervision looks like during break times like lunch and recess and whether or not safe operations is feasible before making the switch to distance learning.

Four HIDOE schools — two on Oahu, one on Kauai, and one on Maui — had to transition temporarily to distance learning after “exhausting all options,” according to Hayashi. He also said that each school community is unique in regards to staffing, and there’s no one-size-fits-all criteria to adhere to.

When Hayashi was asked whether school contingency plans are shared with staff or the community, he said they were not. Currently, only the school principal and complex area superintendent are aware of each school’s parameters and contingency plans to shift to distance learning, causing frustration to schools and communities.

Board member Kaimana Barcarse called upon the HIDOE to share their decision-making process with school communities.

“I think if the communities of the school understand at least a bit, the process that the school is going through, they know that something is being done,” he said, noting that if the communities are informed that their best interests are being considered, it would help them to be more understanding.

Teachers express their frustration

Educators from across the state told board members they are feeling burned out from the profession as the coronavirus rages on into the 2021–22 school year.

Malia Rossetti, a second-year teacher at Kamaile Academy Public Charter School on the Waianae coast, is questioning whether teaching is right for her after all.

“I grew up in Waianae and know how to face struggle,” Rossetti said. “But this is very, very hard. Just the stress of wondering if I’m keeping my students safe alone is too much. Why has the DOE been allowed to operate in ways that endanger my safety, my students’ safety and my community’s safety? I’d also like to know… why those that lead us have passed their leadership role onto individual schools without much, if any, guidance.”

Michelle Lindsay-Lewis, an English language arts teacher at Pahoa High and Intermediate School on Hawaii Island, commented on how the conditions at schools are not sustainable.

“Regarding COVID safety, what safety?” Lindsay-Lewis said. “Mitigation measures in place at the schools are a joke. Teachers have a federally-protected right to a safe workplace, and the HIDOE is currently not providing that.

“Surgical masks provided are paper thin and do not adhere to the current CDC recommendations. Students and staff are constantly sick and absent. There are zero subs to cover the classrooms, so security guards are having to cover classes. What kind of ‘education’ do you think the kids are getting when half of their classes are covered by security guards every single day?” Lindsay-Lewis said.

A third-grade teacher in Honolulu district who submitted anonymous written testimony said his colleague was directed to go to distance learning with one-day notice.

He wrote, “One of my grade-level colleagues had his class shut down because he had over 20% of his students experiencing COVID symptoms. My principal ordered him to go full distance learning the next day, and he had to scramble to convert all his lesson plans and materials digitally while he was still sick. The class shut down so suddenly, and we had no plans on how to proceed. That day was so stressful for all of us, and it clearly shows that we are not prepared for a full school shut down and seamless switch to distance learning without any contingency plan from the DOE.”

Overarching plans necessary to address crisis

While the omicron variant continues to spread throughout HIDOE schools, contributing to staffing shortages and student absences, many schools are reporting absentee rates two to four times higher than pre-pandemic times.

At Thursday’s BOE meeting, Hayashi reported that student attendance ranged from a high of 88.5% to 66%, also noting significant challenges related to staffing because of quarantine and isolation requirements.

HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr. told board members the teachers’ union has been calling for and stands ready to negotiate the necessary procedures to maintain proper educational standards for our keiki.

“Schools are in crisis and school staff are being pushed to and beyond their breaking point,” Tui said. “Large portions of classes are missing so teachers don’t know how to conduct lessons. Similarly, large portions of staff are missing which results in combining classes or warehousing students in larger facilities where there’s minimal social distancing, and the ‘sustained silent reading’ going on is students on their phones on social media.”

Tui also pointed to issues with the HIDOE’s COVID-19 dashboard serving as a source for measuring the department’s safety mitigation strategies. Prior to the start of the new semester, there were only 19 cases per day on average reported compared to 564 cases per day on average since Jan. 10.

HSTA has been raising the concerns about providing KN95 masks to students and staff for months, along with calling for rapid testing at every school.

“There still needs to be a plan and not, ‘We can’t have a plan because schools have their own plans,’” Tui said. “We continue to stand ready to sit with the department and board members to hammer out an agreement to help guide schools as they determine the need to provide continuous instruction for our students.”

Earlier this month, the union submitted a new demand for impact bargaining over the HIDOE’s recent changes to members’ working conditions without appropriate negotiation or a consult-and-confer process, which are violations of HSTA’s contract, HIDOE policy, and state law. The HSTA also initiated a grievance regarding the interim superintendent’s direction to administrators to inappropriately subvert the HIDOE school code to force non-classroom teachers with their own responsibilities to substitute in violation of HSTA’s collective bargaining agreement.

HSTA is currently awaiting a decision by the Hawaii Labor Relations Board on a prohibited practice complaint filed in October that charges the employer with contract violations by refusing to process HSTA’s class grievances related to COVID-19 response and COVID-19 attestation program, or testing mandate.