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As coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to rise exponentially in Hawaii, the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) believes our public schools should utilize 100-percent distance learning starting Aug. 17 rather than returning to in-person instruction.

Distance learning should continue until the end of the first quarter or until such time that public schools are safe for students, teachers, and staff to be together on campuses.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “Hawaii can no longer pretend we are not in the middle of a pandemic and that somehow our keiki and our teachers are impervious to this virus. As teachers, we know how important education is, but we are most concerned about the lives of every one of our students. Online classwork cannot replace face-to-face learning, but it ensures that learning continues and that our keiki and our communities remain safe.”

HSTA also calls on the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH) to provide clear written guidance regarding the rate of positive coronavirus tests, community spread, and metrics to determine the ability of schools to resume in-person instruction safely.

For weeks, HSTA has asked the state to provide specific triggers when it would be safe to open schools and conversely, when school buildings, campuses or the entire system should close. So far, the state has not provided parents, students, and employees with those critical plans that many states and cities across the country have long had in place.

The HSTA Board of Directors voted unanimously Thursday night to take these positions since the state of Hawaii and the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) still have not provided such guidance from the DOH as agreed to in our memorandum of understanding. Members were notified via email Friday morning prior to HSTA’s virtual news conference.

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With a daily case count now surging into triple digits, Hawaii has become one of the top states in the nation with the fastest-growing number of COVID-19 cases, according to The New York Times. Health officials say if this rate continues, Hawaii’s existing hospital capacity will be at risk of being overwhelmed.

In a letter Wednesday, Hawaii’s three neighbor island mayors urged the governor to keep public schools and universities closed for 28 days. State Health Director Bruce Anderson admitted on Aug. 4 that the rising cases in Hawaii make reopening schools risky. “It doesn’t look good, certainly for the schools. We can’t open schools if your community isn’t healthy. You’re just asking for disaster,” he said.

Our state needs to join 11 of the 15 largest school districts in the country that are starting school with virtual learning. Hawaii is the 12th largest school district in the nation.

Furthermore, the HIDOE and the DOH have not created protocols nor disclosed how schools, parents, and the public will be informed if there are coronavirus cases on campuses. Six Hawaii public school campuses reported COVID-19 cases over the summer. Yet this information was not disclosed until July 29, and only in response to a media inquiry.

Given six cases per 8,000 students enrolled in summer school, infections among 179,000 students who would return to campus in the fall could spike into the hundreds, causing exponential growth in Hawaii’s overall case count.

At that point, state officials will have no choice but to close school buildings. Starting the school year with distance learning allows our educators, students, and parents to be proactive and best prepared for this situation.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawaii already suffered from a critical teacher shortage crisis. Since the outbreak, HSTA has received an overwhelming amount of feedback from educators who are considering leaving the profession because they are worried about their health and/or the health of their family members. Many teachers are submitting Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requests for accommodations while others are choosing to retire or take a leave from school this year.

One-hundred percent virtual instruction will allow many of these teachers to remain on the job, and provide our keiki with a quality education during this crisis.