Superintendent admits it’s ‘not possible’ to reopen campuses immediately following spring break

A discussion by the Board of Education Thursday about bringing more public school students back to campuses in the fourth quarter showed while most people support the idea, there are numerous concerns about the readiness, the ability, and reality of increasing on-campus learning in the weeks ahead.

Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto appeared to backpedal from earlier statements that more schools should bring back students after spring break when she told the BOE that reopening campuses on March 22 “is not possible.”

The board heard fellow BOE members, principals, teachers, parents and education advocates raising questions about the details behind actually bringing significant numbers of students back to campuses in the fourth quarter.

Derek Minakami, principal at Kaneohe Elementary, raised concerns about HIDOE’s directive to bring all students back to in-person learning at elementary schools during the fourth quarter.

Minakami noted concern by principals across the state because the department announced that plan last week to the public, “without first seeking input from school leaders. Then two days ago, once the figurative horses have already bolted, we were asked to share concerns. Principals brought up a variety of obstacles, many specific to their campus and geographic area that impact the safe reopening to all schools, including having students eat unmasked while still providing at least six feet of space, or guidance regarding the maximum number of people we can fit in a confined space if you’re limited to three feet apart.”

“I think you’ll find that school leaders are solution-oriented and compliant. We’ll bring up concerns, not so much as a reason or means to block actions, but more to help make better decisions that lead to a successful implementation. We accept that our ideas will not always be agreed to and then, we do as we’re told. Unfortunately, we have not experienced this type of relationship with our superintendent,” Minakami added.

Lisa Morrison, a teacher at Maui Waena Intermediate school and the parent of a public school student, told the board, “I understand that some parents are desperate to have their kids back on campus no matter the risk, but as a teacher, I’m witnessing firsthand how this plays out in an actual Hawaii public school.”

“I wish that all parents understood what logistical problems will need to be solved and how much time that takes in order to make another switch in school models. Realistically, school employees would need a couple of weeks to even plan the implementation,” Morrison said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble says the riskiest activity is mealtime when students wouldn’t wear masks.

“In order to keep proper distancing and small groupings, there could be several lunch periods needed. Is it academically helpful to any child to have to eat as early as 9:30 a.m. or as late as 1:30 p.m.? This is a real possibility to ensure smaller numbers of students are in the cafeteria at one time. And do parents realize that much of fourth quarter in public schools revolves around standardized testing for grades three through eight and grade 11? I personally will be refusing to have my third-grade son participate in the tests, as I am not sending him to school risking COVID exposure only to not have valuable learning time with his teachers,” Morrison added.

Dr. Rebecca Winkie, whose July 1 appointment the board approved Thursday as the new complex area superintendent for the Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai Complex, verified concerns that fellow principals and educators have raised. She currently is principal at Princess Nahienaena Elementary on Maui, and previously taught and served as registrar at Lanai High and Intermediate.

Winkie told the board at Nahienaena Elementary on Maui, “I have approximately 700 students and without dropping the social distancing requirement, we wouldn’t be able to get everyone on campus. We will be serving the families again, because, as you have mentioned earlier, there are some families that are not going to send their students back, no matter what. And so looking at those numbers will be really important.

“But it’s a little tricky going into quarter four, because the students that have been doing distance learning and/or blended learning, they have developed relationships with their current teacher. They have adjusted to the distance learning or the blended learning. So to make adjustments so that you had just one teacher doing distance learning on a grade level, that’d be a little difficult right now,” Winkie said.

“But I do think it is different with every school, and the principals probably know the community and their parents better than anyone. (The) biggest concerns to me is, even if you drop the social distancing measure, is making it safe for students to have lunch and to ride the bus to school. Those are not as easy to control because it’s harder to stay in your bubble. But I think just following the safety measures we have in place and continuing to have a collaborative conversation on what’s safe and having the parents’ input as we’re going forward is the way to go,” Winkie added.

HSTA live streamed the Hawaii Board of Education general business meeting on March 4, 2021.

Kishimoto answers questions from board members who want to know specifics

Kishimoto told the board, “I have not announced that we are opening up on March 22. That is not possible. We know it takes weeks to get another level of reopening done. And I also want to acknowledge that our principals across the board have done a great job every quarter looking at the next level of reopening. And every time they’ve done that, they’ve had to revisit staffing capacity, facilities, resources available. They’ve had to revisit school schedules. They’ve had to reach out again to parents and make sure that parents haven’t changed their perspective on what they previously had collected from them, and so there’s a lot involved in this.”

Kishimoto also appeared to compare public school classrooms to the medical environment, a stretch at best, when she talked about efforts to lessen social distancing guidance.

“It’s important to note that physical distancing guidance has not changed in terms of language, but there’s now new, updated science that confirms the effectiveness of layered strategies,” Kishimoto said.

“For example, the healthcare industry is not able to social distance necessarily at six feet, but the masking along with other layered strategies has prevented transmission of the disease in these work settings. CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is talking about these layer strategies in a different way, as well as other strategies such as hand washing or use of hand sanitizers and respiratory etiquette, such as no coughing or sneezing on others,” Kishimoto said.

“I understand there are concerns regarding the six-feet distancing now that we’ve normed expectations around the standard. While this is recommended when possible, there will be instances where maintaining distance will not be feasible, and so DOH (the state Department of Health) has had discussions with all of the education entities about having the ability to have classes come back, but (with) the absolute critical strategy of wearing masks, hand washing, cleaning facilities, equipment, staggered scheduling, and so forth,” she added.

Board members acknowledge many concerns need to be addressed

BOE Member Kili Namauu told Kishimoto, “It is grand of you to try to get our children back into the schools, and we all know that we would like to have children back into the schools. We support that. However, it has not been easy to make some of those things happen, and we have to do it safely. I’m concerned about having this thing rolled out without having, perhaps, principals have the opportunity to weigh in on some of these plans, because these are the people that are on the ground.”

“Although you and your team want to see this happen, and we do all want to see this happen, the reality is the people that have to do the actual implementation of opening up the schools are the principals. They’re the ones that have to create the situation for safety-wise. They have to think of everything. They have to think of their teachers. They have to think of their students. They have to think of the parents. And they’re really on the ground trying to make all of this work,” Namauu added.

“I don’t know if there are going to be some accommodations made for those schools on your part and your team, because we have spiking numbers on Maui, more than even on Oahu. Our rates are terrible, for example, and I know that you mentioned that vaccines are happening everywhere. Well, I can tell you firsthand, they’re not really happening on Maui. In fact, for about three or four weeks, we weren’t even giving out a vaccine at all to anybody, and I know this firsthand, because I have my own staff of teachers who had all of their appointments canceled, and perhaps they’re just starting now. So vaccinations are definitely behind. We have spiking numbers here on Maui, so I have some concerns about schools being able to open up properly. I know for some schools, they were only able to do their hybrid, blended learning rolled out towards the end of February, and they’re trying to do this now and get used to that, and then to expect that school,” and now they are being asked to transition to in-person learning in the fourth quarter “when they’re just starting to get through the routine and process for these students as well as the teachers,” Namauu said.

Namauu said school staff and administrators “do still have concerns about the six-foot distancing. The CDC says maybe that’s not as important, but for some people, that is very important. The six-foot distancing is very, very important. And there’s still some ambiguity and conditions about eating, having the ability to eat and take your mask off, and the distancing within cafeterias. Some of these students have to eat within the classrooms themselves, and so there are some concerns about that. They’ll have to take their mask off in order to eat.”

“So I just want people to know out there that it’s not that easy to just say let’s open up the schools and have everybody run through the front door, because there’s a lot of things that have to be done, and especially at the granular level of trying to get these things done, to make these things happen,” Namauu said.

“And I hope that you will really give these principals the guidance that is needed to help them overcome many of these obstacles, and to give them the autonomy really needed as well to do what’s best for their schools because they know their community,” she added.

BOE Chair Catherine Payne said, “I think it’s very clear from the testimony, from the board members’ comments, and from the discussion that we’ve had with the leadership, that this is a very complicated process. It’s something that is needed. We do need to get our kids back in school, that’s certainly very evident. But we have to be able to assure everyone that this is being done properly. And so I think there are a number of things that the board has said they would like to get more information on as we move forward. Some of those things we’d like to hear even before another board meeting, as things can be pointed out to us as progress is happening.”

Cheri Nakamura, director of HEʻE Coalition, a Hawaii education advocacy group, told the board, “It is one thing for the superintendent to say it’s about kids and what they need. It’s another thing to provide the proper guidance and support to schools, and not leave them once again bearing the burden by themselves.”

The board took no official action on school reopening plans Thursday since the agenda item was for discussion purposes only.