The Hawaii State Teachers Association is alarmed by the lack of transparency and public notification about coronavirus cases at Hawaii’s public schools.
Over the last few days, teachers across the state have contacted HSTA to report confirmed COVID-19 cases at four schools. In each of these cases, teachers were notified, but parents and the greater public were not. This is happening less than one week before students are supposed to return for face-to-face learning and testing on school campuses.
At a Hawaii State Board of Education (BOE) meeting, BOE members expressed disappointment that they and the public had not been told of six coronavirus cases on school campuses during summer school. The incidents we’ve learned about over the last few days show neither the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH) nor the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) is informing the public about cases at all.
In an email to school staff in recent days, one principal wrote, “Because DOH is busy with an increased caseload we have done initial notifications to those we feel might have been in close contact and they have been approved for telework for a two week period as a precautionary measure.”
“Our principals are not contact tracers and have not been trained to be contact tracers,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee at a news conference Tuesday. “It begs the question: Has the governor been informed? If yes, why has the governor kept the information secret? If no, are plans to bring students back to campuses based on accurate information?”
The HIDOE has said that the health department is supposed to handle contact tracing and notification if there is a positive case that affects a campus. Over the last few days, already stressed school principals are doing their best to inform school staff of campus outbreaks, but the DOH has not been in touch with educators in the critical first two days after officials learn of an outbreak. Therefore the amount of positive cases on campuses is not known.
Without proper tracing, the question is how many people on campus are actually positive? How can the Governor, Superintendent, and the BOE make informed decisions about the safety of our campuses without up-to-date and accurate information? Will teachers receive their test results before students return? Without tracing and testing are there teachers who are infected who will be teaching face-to-face with students? If they can’t keep up with the cases now before students return to campuses, how will the health department staff be able to keep up when 180,000 students return and more outbreaks are expected?
For months now, HSTA has asked for detailed “triggers” from the health department about when it’s safe to open schools or when school buildings, a campus, or schools across the island or state must shut down. Around the country, other states and cities have detailed plans about exactly what those metrics would be before schools or the system is closed down or reopened safely.
When HSTA signed a memorandum of understanding with the HIDOE to clarify procedures and requirements for schools to reopen, the state agreed that crucial, specific written guidance needed to be provided by the DOH. That information has not been provided.
“With cases starting to bubble up across our state, each school is scrambling to put something into place because the Department of Health is proving that they are not up to the task. This is despite their assurances that they had everything under control. We know now that that is not the case,” said HSTA Vice President Osa Tui Jr. “This, unfortunately, comes as no surprise to our members as they see first hand that the promises of safety for students and personnel. They’re all shibai. Many schools cannot acquire the PPE (personal protective equipment) that they need to do their jobs in a safe manner, especially for many of our neighbor island schools. Assertions that many of the cleaning protocols that are being put into place are not likely to be done in a way that ensures safety.”
The HIDOE has also not disclosed how many school staff members are currently being quarantined, which has a direct impact on the ability of a school to provide instruction.
Policy makers, parents, and the public deserve to know important information so they can decide the vital question of whether our schools are safe for our keiki to return on Monday. The HIDOE has shown that it is not transparent, and the DOH has shown it is not prepared. Yet, the state is still fixated on bringing back students to campuses on Monday.
Since the HIDOE is not disclosing which campuses have positive coronavirus cases, it’s important for the public to know these are the four schools that reported COVID-19 positive cases on their campuses since Aug. 6:
- Campbell High
- Hilo Intermediate
- Kapolei Middle
- Moanalua High
Between July 31 and Aug. 5, we also have reports of educators quarantining because of confirmed COVID-19 cases on four other campuses:
- Iliahi Elementary
- Kaala Elementary
- Leilehua High
- Waialae Elementary Public Charter School
Following HSTA’s Tuesday news conference, the Hawaii Department of Education released a list, by complex area, of 13 coronavirus cases at schools since June 6, six of them in August.
In the last 11 days, there have been at least eight campuses with coronavirus cases in which some staff members were quarantined and campuses closed—and these were the only schools that HSTA has confirmed so far. Are there other schools with active cases? When that happens, will the HIDOE and DOH let people know?
Other jurisdictions across the country are regularly releasing the number of coronaviruses connected to school campuses, along with the number of school staff who are being quarantined as a precaution. So far, our state has not provided the public with that important information so parents and the community understand what’s really happening on our campuses.
“As a parent of a student at Campbell High, where one of those cases was reported, I am angry that the HIDOE has not notified me of other parents just a week before my daughter and her classmates are supposed to return to campus,” Rosenlee said. “Parents have the right to know if their school has been affected and is safe. Why is the HIDOE and DOH keeping this information from parents and the public?”
Anthony McCurdy, a Campbell High teacher, is currently isolating for 14 days after being notified by his school of a COVID-19 case on campus. McCurdy is over 50 years old and a Type I diabetic, which places him in a high-risk category. He has daughters who attend a public high school, and lives in a multigenerational household.
Fortunately, his test came back negative.
“My administration did everything they could to follow up on contacts from the person who tested positive and evidently it was reported to the Department of Health, but I never received any follow up call from the DOH regarding my potential exposure,” McCurdy said. “I know of at least six people from Campbell who are on quarantine for two weeks. I called Kaiser and arranged for a test, and kudos to Kaiser, it was quick and easy and really weird. But I got the results back in about 24 hours, so that’s some weight off my shoulders. However, I am very concerned that while my administration acted quickly and with compassion, I still haven’t heard from the DOH at all.”
Tuesday afternoon, State Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told reporters at a news conference the HIDOE is requesting a specific team of contact tracers for public schools.
Without this information and because of the high number of cases across the state, HSTA reaffirms its stance that our public schools should not have students on campus next week and virtual learning should start on Aug. 17 statewide. With cases spiking in Hawaii and state health department contact tracers seemingly overwhelmed, now is not the time to bring kids back to classrooms. It would be much safer to have students pick up instructions, packets, and materials from entrance areas or in a drive-thru operation with their parents.
During this pandemic we must remember that the health and safety of our keiki and our school employees, including our teachers, must be our most important concern.