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Members of the Hawaii State Board of Education expressed concern Thursday about a variety of issues raised by front-line educators on how the Hawaii State Department of Education is dealing with the coronavirus. 

Following several hours of testimony, most of it from teachers, BOE member Kili Namauu said, "I am very interested in how a lot of this is impacting our staff. Can we get metrics on the percentage of staff who are teleworking, those who are requesting teleworking. How many are not receiving it?

“I’m concerned about people getting very frustrated over this. I don’t want to lose staff. We have to have a better idea about how we are addressing that. I’m concerned about those who are, perhaps, they are going to retire. Because they’re just, they’re done, and I get it,” Namauu said. 

“I understand there’s data, but I also listen to stories. How are we going to support our staff, how are we going to support our teachers, how are we going to support our administrators?” Namauu asked.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s Board of Directors overwhelmingly voted to support Hawaii’s public schools to be in 100-percent distance learning mode for all students until at least the beginning of the second semester of this school year, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee told the board.

HSTA also believes that educators should have the option of teleworking, he said.

At the BOE meeting, Rosenlee testified about HSTA members’ concerns and said, “The lack of action and transparency from the DOE has put the lives and health of teachers, staff, and our students in jeopardy. This was clearly evident today when the Department of Education and the Department of Health announced metrics for reopening schools. HSTA was never consulted in the creation of these metrics.

“These metrics are so far outside the norm of what is being done across the entire country that it puts everyone in our community at risk. We have already had 89 cases in our schools and one death,” Rosenlee added. “If the superintendent refuses to take action on these issues, it is creating a severe lack of trust. Then it is incumbent upon this Board of Education to assume the responsibility and to take action immediately to rectify the situation.”

View the following news releases and resource:

HSTA is urging the BOE to schedule a meeting to talk about the new pandemic trigger metrics, take action on telework, and other items.

HSTA Vice President Osa Tui, the registrar at McKinley High, told board members, “during this golden age of telecomputing, it's unfortunate how telework policies and procedures are being carried out haphazardly, inconsistently, and unfairly throughout the state.

“You have read and you will later hear how reasonable requests are being routinely denied; how our educators are having to use telepathy to figure out what their administrators want in order to win the telework jackpot,” Tui said. “On one campus, telework might be generously granted while on another next door, telework is withheld like there’s no tomorrow.”

Principals point fingers at their complex area superintendents (CASs), Tui said.  

“CASs say it’s up to the principals. All the while, the superintendent (Christina Kishimoto) is out there like a televangelist preaching that telework is very much available,” Tui added. “Simultaneously, the governor and the Honolulu mayor are on television telegraphing their desire for employers to provide allowances for workers to telecommute.

“Please be clear and direct with administrators to stop playing games with telework, to stop playing games with peoples’ lives. If not, we’re in jeopardy of so many more being forced to teleport themselves right out of this profession,” Tui said.

Logan Okita, a first-grade teacher at Nimitz Elementary and HSTA’s secretary-treasurer, told the BOE, “It’s taken time and a lot of energy, but we’ve found our groove and are making the best out of distance learning.

“I’d like to speak to you today about the unsafe conditions my colleagues and their students throughout the state are experiencing. Many of our special education teachers and their most vulnerable students are physically together in classrooms every day. These students often require one-to-one assistance from other adults as well as services provided by other professionals,” Okita said.

“HSTA has heard from many of these teachers who have shared that there are days when up to 20 people have been in a classroom because these students are on campus. The conditions that we are subjecting these students too are unsafe. These are often our students who are unable to wear a mask or understand the reason for maintaining physical distancing. They are our most vulnerable, but shouldn’t we be doing our best to keep them healthy?” Okita asked.

For the first time, HSTA compiled and submitted testimony—109 pages worth—on behalf of members who wished to stay anonymous so they could speak freely about the many problems they encounter without fear of retaliation. In addition, HSTA leaders from across the state read excerpts aloud during the meeting to amplify their voice.

Telework unfairness and problems explained 

On telework, one teacher submitted this statement read by an HSTA teacher leader at the BOE meeting:

“I understand telework is supposed to be decided on one’s ability to do one’s job as well or better from home. While I personally can meet this standard and could offer proof, it is still my understanding I would be doing my career a disservice if I even apply. I don’t even believe that is the appropriate standard to apply under the current unprecedented circumstances. That is not the standard Governor Ige and Superintendent Kishimoto asked Hawaii’s other employers to apply. In their joint press conference of August 7th, they requested flexibility from Hawaii employers in light of distance learning schedules. In announcing the new stay at home, work from home order of August 25th, Mayor Kirk Caldwell claimed if you can work from home, you should. It is too bad telework flexibility is not being widely offered to the very teachers who are bending over backward, working more hours than ever, to create a high-quality distance learning experience for Hawaii’s students.

Twice now I have come home to find my 4th grader in tears over a distance learning issue my mom couldn’t help her with but would have taken me only a moment to navigate to assist. They keep reminding us teachers about self-care and the importance of “putting our own oxygen mask on first.” Telework  — without jumping through hoops or risking my career — would put me in a far better position to be able to help my students academically and emotionally.” 

A second teacher submitted this testimony about telework concerns:

“We've never had our own classrooms at our multi-track school.  And with all four tracks on duty, our teams of teachers have been forced to share ONE classroom between six people.  In just our building alone, there are over thirty staff members on at any one time, in which we must share limited toilets, one fridge, and one microwave.  How is this safe?  How is it that most private and public organizations are allowed to telework but public school teachers must report to campus when we can do the exact same jobs from the safety of our own homes?

Neither my husband nor I have family in Hawaii. My daughter has been shuffled through at least four different houses since school started because we have no child care.

And even if there was a place I could take her to — can I afford childcare week after week?  The last time I put her in childcare was summer break (we had no other choice), and on the last day of summer camp we were notified that she was exposed to another student who was positive with COVID-19. Do we even want to chance another exposure at another childcare provider? No!!

One time we were stuck with no child care and I was forced to bring my child onto campus with me so that I could work at school and I was reprimanded for bringing in my child to work. I asked for other options after sharing my situation and I was told that the only thing that I could do was to take COVID family leave — which meant I was not allowed to telework, that I would need a substitute.

If this goes on any longer, I may be forced to quit my teaching position because I have no other choice but to stay home with my daughter. Please — teaching remotely has been stressful enough — but no teacher should need to worry about child care for his/her child.” 

A third teacher submitted this anonymous testimony about telework:

“A person in my household recently tested positive for COVID.  The Hawaii State Department of Health recommends that anyone who has been directly exposed to COVID is required to quarantine for at least 14 days.  With that being said, when I shared this with my administrator, I was asked to provide a note from the doctor that advised me and my family to quarantine for 14 days. To obtain this documentation added onto my stress of going back and forth with my PCP, explaining to him why I needed to provide a doctor's note when it is already DOH guidelines to quarantine for 14 days after direct exposure to COVID.  I was already stressing about how to adapt to living in my house with someone who is COVID positive, making sure this person is taken care of without getting myself sick, on top of readjusting to working from home.

I spoke with some other colleagues from different schools and it was shared with me that we need to provide documentation in order to quarantine for 14 days after direct exposure.  With this knowledge, I feel absolutely uncomfortable physically reporting to work at my school.  How many of my coworkers are scared to even get tested because of the social stigma, so they don't tell anyone they've been exposed to COVID and just keep showing up to work anyway, putting everyone at risk? I think it is absolutely unfair that we as educators have to jump through all of these hoops to be granted to telework.  I was given a 10-page packet to complete for teleworking and to know that some of these requests get declined after going through this lengthy process is infuriating!  Why are educators forced to come physically to work during a global pandemic? If someone doesn't feel comfortable physically reporting to work for whatever reason and has the capabilities to work from home, they should be allowed to!”

A fourth teacher sent in this telework testimony:

“Teachers at my school are not allowed to telecommute for any reason: concern about the health & safety of family, the need to be home for children, or for mild-illness. None of these reasons. All requests that I know of have been denied. This puts people at risk for illness –teachers will come in because it is easier than trying to do substitute plans in this environment. Not being able to care for children and/or sensitive family adds stress that can lead to depression and anxiety. Not being treated like professionals makes us miserable. Morale is very low at my school. 

On top of not being allowed to telecommute, teachers are not allowed to bring their children to school. The administration’s standpoint has been, too bad you must work it out. Regardless of their zero exceptions stance, there was a substitute teacher working at our school with a child working at a desk in the classroom. I don't understand how that is approved for a sub, but not for a teacher. 

We were told that if there was a COVID case on campus, the school would shut down for two weeks (that's what I remember) for cleaning. However, when this did actually happen, my administration made no plans to notify staff or plan for remote teaching to ensure safety. In fact, we did not know about the case until we were forwarded an email that had been sent to parents. 

Teachers have received very short notice of students coming into classrooms. There is no oversight or assistance for teachers who are teaching online while trying to ensure a student in the classroom is following safety procedures. It's not clear if students are receiving safety orientation before entering teacher classrooms.”

Special education teachers share their concerns about being in classrooms during the pandemic

Dozens of HSTA members submitted anonymous testimony about various concerns related to in-person special education during coronavirus shutdowns most places in Hawaii.

One SPED teacher submitted this testimony:

“FSC (fully self-contained special education) students, social emotional needs students, ELL students, and students whose parents indicate limited WiFi access are all on campus. Even with this limited population, it is clearly impossible to enforce social distancing, mask-wearing, and sanitation to DOH recommended standards. Custodians simply cannot keep up and no new custodians have been hired.

FSC students are crammed on SPED busses with no social distancing or mask-wearing enforcement. FSC classrooms have so many students and adults, it’s impossible to social distance. This is in a room of medically fragile students with the most underlying conditions in a student population. Leadership is fully aware but nothing is being done, because what can be done if the DOE ignores the DOH to push the agenda of schools reopening?

There are all these written guidelines on COVID-19 response and on-campus protocols, but administration has made it clear they are recommendations and not required, because there is no way we have the resources to actually do any of it effectively.  SPED students are not getting their IEPs implemented as that is clearly impossible but the DOE is still mandating they must be.”

Another special education educator said the following:

“On August 17, we welcomed our students back to school with all participating in virtual instruction except special education students and those deemed vulnerable and unable to participate in online instruction effectively. Although our department met with administration to determine students who would be coming to campus, there was no clear guidance on how we determined this.

We were provided with a definite answer on August 13 that students would be starting school. That meant we only had two days to prep and make sure we had our procedures in order. The SPED teachers made up the procedures of how the students would enter campus, who would check temperature, how we clean and sanitized everything daily. There was no guidance from the administration team at all. I have many service providers for my students coming in and out of the room everyday with no precautions taken before they even walk on campus.

Also, despite conversations to change the caseloads so that each teacher is given a different platform to teach to, our caseloads remained the same. Therefore, we have a mixture of in-person students, virtual students, and Acellus-only students to teach. The special education teachers are the only teachers expected to do this on campus.

On top of the uneven job duties expected of us, I have been denied the opportunity to bring my son to school with me because “I have students in my room during the day.” Now I have to pay for child care out of my own pocket so that my son has a safe place to go during the day.”

A third special education teacher submitted this anonymous testimony:

“I am currently teaching students face-to-face because this is the only option that was directed from people above administration to support the students.

Not having the option to telework has been a struggle with me. I am expecting my first child in the spring, and although I know it's best to have my students in my classroom, I know that I need to take care of my health, and the health of my child. I am also fearful for those in my family who are older and have underlying health conditions.

Since we started a little over a month ago, my colleague was exposed to COVID and I was placed on a two-week quarantine, not knowing how this would affect myself, my students, and my family. With no other guidance, I am going back to work in my classroom.

I love teaching, but why do we need to be placed on the front lines without proper education on the virus and no resources to ensure that we will not bring COVID home to our loved ones?

Please consider allowing ALL teachers to telework. This will allow us to solely concentrate on teaching without the fear or risk of catching this virus.”

PPE and other cleanliness concerns revealed by front-line educators 

Educators also shared testimony about a lack of personal protective devices (PPE).

One teacher said this:

“I am appalled that the PPE I received from my school were two travel-sized containers of hand sanitizer, a homemade mask, and a flimsy face shield held together with a rubber band. That's the PPE I received when we were preparing for students to return to school. I feel like I am forced to choose between providing these students with face-to-face instruction, despite their lack of compliance with social distancing protocols, to maintain an amicable working environment over my health and the health of my loved ones.”

Another teacher wrote:

“We are not supplied with adequate cleaning materials to protect ourselves or the kids, disinfect the rooms appropriately, clean our daily materials, etc. One school day with only 10 kids in class requires a minimum of 2 rolls of paper towels from all the constant hand washing, a full container of soap and 1 to 2 containers of disinfectant wipes, as well as 1 bottle of sanitizer in order to just to maintain normal body and classroom sanitation needs. The school has not provided any of these materials and teachers will be expected to spend even more personal funds in order to protect our students and our selves adequately.”

While a third teacher said this:

“Classrooms are not being cleaned except for trash removal at the end of the day and entry/exit doorknobs being sprayed once daily with disinfectant. There are no room cleaners and custodial staff are stretched thin.”

A fourth teacher sharing PPE concerns said this:

“One small bottle of liquid sanitizer, one small bottle of hand sanitizer, one snack-size Ziploc bag stuffed with gloves, a few disposable masks – that’s the PPE I was provided at the start of the year, without mention of restocking of any kind of PPE supplies. Head maintenance worker, when asked about cleaning and disinfecting classrooms, admits that he would love to do so but does not have the manpower to clean and sanitize every classroom between class periods and even after school!”

While a fifth educator added this:

“Classroom cleaners have been reduced to twice a week instead of five times a week. Over 100 staff members including custodians, teachers, and support staff are being forced to use one single-stall bathroom per gender and the bathroom is not cleaned or sanitized throughout the day while the principal has her own private bathroom. Our school claims to have a cleaning schedule that is reported to the principal. I work in a room where other adults come in and out during the day.  In this room, we see a custodian maybe once a day.  The last time we had a custodian enter our room during school hours was three days ago.  He came in one door, sprayed solution on a single light switch, and then walked out. No other surfaces, including the other door, were sanitized.   In addition, our staff members with sinks in their classrooms have been denied soap.  Soap is being supplied in bathrooms only.  

Today our main bathroom was out of paper towels for most of the day.  The bathroom that a majority of our special needs students are using is infested with ants that crawl all over the sinks. How are we supposed to trust that our bathrooms are clean when we have no towels and there are trailing ants all over?”

View all 109 pages of HSTA’s anonymous testimony here

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