After receiving a record-breaking amount of written testimony from administrators, teachers, support staff, and parents, the Hawaii State Board of Education (BOE) will hold a special meeting next week to consider changing the 2020–21 school calendar to delay students’ return to public school campuses.

The virtual meeting will take place at 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 30, one day after educators report back to campuses across the state for training and preparation. Click here for more information and to view the agenda.

School employees and the public sent in 4,000 pages of testimony, and provided roughly two hours of live testimony during a virtual meeting of the board, during which more than 1,000 people listened virtually, exceeding the BOE’s Webex platform’s capacity.

Click here to listen to a recording of the meeting. If you are prompted for a password, enter HawaiiBOE2020.

BOE Chair Catherine Payne said the board will “hold a special meeting to address the concerns in the testimony about training and health matters that came up. At that point, we could also consider a waiver (of the 180 required student instructional days) for some additional professional development days.”

“These individuals reached out to us as board members. They reached out asking for help,” BOE member Dwight Takeno said. “While I trust that the (Hawaii State Department of Education) will do something if we give them some directives, I still think that overall, they came to us and we owe them something in return.”

BOE member Maggie Cox, a former principal, joined a majority of board members calling for a delay in bringing students back to campuses.

“Some of them are going to be using curriculum they haven’t seen before. We’re trying to find out how to give extra time that the principals have asked for and that the teachers have asked for,” Cox said.

While it’s unclear ultimately what will happen, board members discussed several options focused on bringing educators and other staff back to campuses on July 29 as scheduled.

One proposal would start distance learning on Aug. 4 instead of in-school instruction for students, and then bring students back to classrooms two weeks later on Aug. 18. That would give educators time for training on COVID-19 protocols and distance learning. Another option discussed by board members would delay the beginning of the school year for a period of time so educators could concentrate on professional development, COVID-19 protocols, and other preparations before bringing students back to classrooms. Ultimately, the board could recommend other options.

Principals, HGEA tell BOE schools aren't ready to safely open

The board heard from front-line educators, including principals statewide, who all said their schools were not ready to bring back students on Aug. 4.

Among them was Derek Minakami, principal at Kaneohe Elementary and president of the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) Bargaining Unit 06, which represents principals, vice principals, athletic directors, and other educational officers.

“Our schools, our DOE have much to do to be adequately prepared to reopen. We empathize with our superintendent and her leadership team, who face the overwhelming and tremendous organizational and operational challenges this pandemic has brought about, and like our superintendent, we feel for our students and their families who need school to reopen,” Minakami said. “Yet with the long list of new, unique tasks to complete, ones like no other we’ve had to do in the past, coupled with the majority of our staff still on break and not expected to return until just a few days prior to students, more time will benefit and better prepare our schools to reopen safely, orderly, efficiently while providing the quality learning expected.

“Regardless of the start date, we will work tirelessly to be ready,” Minakami noted.

While Minakami was the only principal who testified in person Thursday, dozens of his fellow principals from every complex in Hawaii turned in written testimony detailing a myriad of reasons their schools are not ready to welcome back children on Aug. 4.

Randy Perreira, executive director of HGEA, which also represents educational assistants and thousands of other non-teaching positions in public schools, asked the board to listen to an “unprecedented amount of direct testimony” from administrators and staff.

“Administrators, teachers and support staff are stepping up and making their voices heard,” Perreira said. “The employees we represent still have no answers to basic questions about protocols and the safety of children and staff. Training, if provided at all, has been insufficient. Protective equipment remains a major issue.”

Perreira added they are speaking out “despite the fear of retaliation after the superintendent advised leaders to stand with her on this reopening plan, including an email she sent out today. Administrators, teachers and support staff are showing true leadership for their school communities by stepping up and making their voices of concern heard. And you can certainly expect that the HSTA, UPW, and HGEA will react very quickly to any attempts at retaliation for those who speak out. 

“Please know this is not a union issue. This is about doing something that we all agree needs to be done, but should be done in the right way and the right time,” Perreira said. “Will you believe the bureaucrats in the Liliuokalani building (HIDOE headquarters), Kinau Hale (the state Department of Health headquarters), and the governor's office or the thousands of employees on the front lines who have offered testimony today?”

Teachers give convincing testimony about reopening concerns

Caroline Freudig, a teacher at Kalaheo Elementary and HSTA Kauai Chapter president, had a simple message for BOE members.

“I can assure you, for Kauai, we are not all prepared at this time,” she said.

After she reached out to all 21 schools in her chapter, finding that roughly half of those who responded to her questions told her sufficient safety procedures were not in place and they lacked sanitizer supplies.

Keonepoko Elementary teacher Michael Haring told the board, "The questions about reopening schools should not be how much risk can teachers and staff take. It should be how much risk can we avoid.

“The fallacy of a classroom bubble will enable community transmission,” Haring said.

Lisa Morrison works at Maui Waena Intermediate as student activities coordinator and eighth-grade teacher. Her son is a third-grader at Paia Elementary School. She was among the 84 percent of parents who answered a HIDOE survey saying she preferred face-to-face instruction.

“Of course I value in-person instruction. I’m a teacher. But the survey asked for preference with no context at all. I prefer strawberry ice cream, but if it comes topped with a contagious virus, I choose chocolate instead,” Morrison said.

“I didn’t mean for my response to be used against my child’s teacher as she tries to prepare for school,” Morrison said. “Please do not reduce my job as the yearbook teacher to making tribute pages for students and teachers who’ve died.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the organization supports bringing teachers back to schools on July 29, “because teachers will be able to go to their classrooms, maintain social distancing, get the needed training for distance learning and prepare for when students come.”

Osa Tui Jr., McKinley High registrar and HSTA vice president, was part of the HSTA Negotiations Team that worked out the memorandum of understanding with HIDOE about schools reopening.

“Starting Aug. 4 was non-negotiable, as we were told it was already announced to the public. The department insisted that things would be okay, as they continue to do. You’re hearing otherwise once again from many voices speaking as one,” Tui said.

“How many voices does it take to penetrate this bubble? If not your teachers, do you trust your principals who are telling you we’re not ready?” Tui asked. “We all want our students back, but please, let’s do it right and not rushed.”

On Tuesday, Tui and Rosenlee spoke at an HSTA news conference calling on the state to delay students’ return to schools because they weren’t ready to open safely.

State Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and other top HIDOE officials declined reporters’ requests for interviews in response to HSTA’s concerns. Instead, Kishimoto released a brief video more than six hours after HSTA’s Tuesday news conference in which she claimed, “All schools have what they need to reopen safely.”

But the inundation of written testimony from principals and teachers received by the BOE this week proved Kishimoto’s claims wrong. Principals produced lengthy lists of concerns with only a week before educators are supposed to return to campus on July 29.

The HGEA and UPW joined HSTA in a joint statement Wednesday calling for a delay in bringing students back to campus.