Educators in other areas of the state will hold similar events in the weeks ahead

About 200 Leeward Oahu educators conducted socially distanced information picketing Tuesday afternoon to raise concerns about a lack of consistent safety protocols and an agreement which would enforce safe practices to keep students, school staff and the community safer during the pandemic. Public school teachers across the state will hold similar informational pickets in the coming days and weeks.

Manu Naeole, a Nanakuli High and Intermediate math teacher, was one of the teachers walking the picket lines outside the state’s Kapolei Office Building after school Tuesday.

“We are here today to raise awareness and to make the public aware of some of the struggles and the challenges we’ve been facing as teachers in the classroom. We’ve tried to do our part to be teachers, but want to make sure that we do it in as safe a manner as possible,” said Naeole.

“It appears that the state has kind of taken a cookie-cutter approach. With this whole endeavor of getting us back to school and having all the students back in school, they’re kind of there hoping one style fits all for all schools. And here on the (Leeward) coast, we just are presented with different challenges with our low vaccination rate and high COVID positive rates,” Naeole added.

Julie Reyes Oda, HSTA Leeward Chapter president, represents HSTA’s largest chapter in the state, made up of nearly 3,100 teachers, counselors, librarians, and registrars who work at public and charter schools from Pearl City through Makaha.

“First and foremost, we’re asking to be able to have a voice on the table. So we’re asking to be able to bring forth solutions that we can talk about that we hope will be able to make our schools work and to be able to get kids in the classroom,” said Reyes Oda, who teaches math at Nanakuli High and Intermediate.

Since late last year, HSTA has been asking to negotiate what’s called a memorandum of understanding (MOU) about school safety protocols and pandemic contingency plans, but the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) and interim Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi have refused to even negotiate any kind of health and safety agreement with the union, similar to what was in place last school year.

“We want to keep schools open,” said Reyes Oda. “We want to keep kids in class, but to be able to do that, we have to keep everyone safe. Because we can’t have classrooms run when there’s no teacher. We can’t have class when there’s no students. To be able to do that, we need to have both students and teachers safe and ready to be able to learn and to teach in the classroom at the same time.”

Reyes Oda said some classes along the Waianae Coast are half full and sometimes there are no students attending classes because so many are sick with COVID-19 or isolating because they were close contacts of someone who’s sick. She also said a lack of substitute teachers willing to work in crowded classrooms has worsened the teacher shortage this school year, especially when teachers are isolated after being close contacts or getting sick with COVID-19.

Wearing masks while picketing on sidewalks along Kamokila Boulevard in Kapolei, teachers held signs that said “Safe Schools, Safe Communities,” “Safety Our Students Deserve,” and “We are HSTA.”

HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. said, “HSTA wants our schools to be open, but they also want them to be safe.”

“We want our students to be able to come and have those opportunities to be in person, but not when we’re putting 30 students in a class, not when we’re putting them at double desks, shoulder to shoulder, not when they’re in the cafeteria on top of each other, the whole school, trying to get lunch at one time when there’s free lunch and free breakfast available. There are things that we can do to make things safer. There are things that we can do so that safe schools become safe communities, and that’s what we want to sit down with the superintendent to work out,” Tui said.

“It’s important that our schools stay open, but there are some communities where we might have to transition to hybrid teaching. We’ve seen it happening with our charter schools, and that is something that we want schools to have the option to do. But that’s not going to happen without working out a memorandum of understanding with the superintendent, with the Department of Education,” Tui added.

Chad Mahoe, who is an Ewa Makai Middle 7th grade counselor, said, “What we’re wanting to do is just making sure that our voices are heard as a union. And we just want to make sure that we keep our community and our schools safe.”

“At some schools, we have up to 30 to 35 students in the classroom. There’s no way to social distance them inside of the classroom, and even if we look at the cafeteria during lunches, a lot of schools, we have more than 200 students at one time seated, even in our outdoor spaces,” Mahoe added.

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Meet our slogan winner

One of our sign slogans, “Safe Schools Safe Communities,” was inspired by a submission by Ka Waihona O Ka Naʻauao Public Charter School teacher Joanna Hirota. The Leeward Chapter member suggested “Our schools need to be safe, so our community can be safe” when we asked for slogan ideas in a Member Matters email. Mahalo, Joanna, for your contribution! From left: HSTA Leeward Chapter UniServ Director Ilima Long, HSTA Leeward Chapter President Julie Reyes Oda, teacher Joanna Hirota, and HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr.