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Parents, teachers, and even a public school student pleaded with the Hawaii State Board of Education Thursday to continue distance learning at public schools through at least the end of the first quarter, a decision state Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said she’s leaving to the 15 complex area superintendents across the state.

View all written public testimony here.

Kishimoto also said the state Department of Health (DOH) is still deciding on triggers and metrics for when schools would be safe to open or should close, even though schools reopened to students on Monday. Education department leaders answered detailed questions from BOE members about classroom teacher telework in response to concerns raised by educators.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee told the BOE that on Aug. 15, the HSTA Board of Directors “overwhelmingly voted to state that they have no confidence in Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s handling of the reopening of Hawaii’s public schools.” 

Hawaii’s public schools should not reopen until at least the end of the quarter on Oct. 2, Rosenlee told the board, a request made by many others testifying at a virtual BOE meeting that lasted for more than seven hours Thursday.

“Right now, some of Hawaii’s public schools are scheduled to reopen on Sept. 14, without any criteria to determine if they are safe to reopen,” Rosenlee added.

“No major school district has been able to reopen without a dramatic increase in cases,” he said. Hawaii is one of the 15 largest school districts in the country.

“The constant uncertainty of teaching has led to confusion and stress among teachers and students. Right now the complexes of Lahaina, Lanai, Maui, Kekaulike, and Baldwin have delayed opening until the end of the first quarter. All other complexes should follow,” Rosenlee said.

Karly Kanehiro, a teacher at Campbell High, the largest high school in the state, told board members, “Superintendent Kishimoto said, ‘We are ready. Our students are ready.’ No, superintendent, we are not. It seems the DOE and the department that represents us is not listening to us.

“We're most likely going to see a spike in cases because of (this week’s reopening) in the upcoming weeks, yet the DOE still thinks it's a good idea to reopen to hybrid learning after Sept. 11,” Kanehiro asked during her BOE testimony delivered via Webex Thursday. “When will you see how the decisions you are making are impacting the lives of our community and our ohana of Hawaii? Why was Sept. 11 chosen as a date that we might need to return to face-to-face instruction? Again, what is the data for that resume date? What are the metrics that schools would be safe to reopen, or did they just pick a random date?

“Is this going to be a month-by-month basis? Are parents, students, teachers, and staff going to have to plan month by month because our leadership is not strong enough to make definitive decisions? How will the Board of (Education) and DOE respond to the rise in cases? What will you say to parents or teachers or childs that will get sick, or a family member that loses their grandma because they contracted COVID at school? Or the SPED (special education) teacher who is immunocompromised but asked to show up for her 15 FSC (fully self-contained) kids who could also be high risk. Why? Do you think these decisions are protecting our vulnerable population? No, they are not. What our keiki truly deserve is to have strong leaders that will listen and consider the health and needs of the community,” Kanehiro added. 

Superintendent Kishimoto said public and private school officials met with the DOH Wednesday to discuss developing triggers for when it’s safe to reopen schools and when schools should go to distance learning because of outbreaks. Kishimoto said the group is looking to model Hawaii’s specific triggers after similar plans put together by other states including Oregon and Connecticut.

“This will allow us to move from distance learning to having these triggers defined by the DOH and in place before we have to make another shift,” Kishimoto said.

She said the panel will meet again on Monday. HSTA did not know about this effort and was not invited to suggest teacher members or staff for the work group. Kishimoto said the panel includes teachers.   

BOE Vice Chair Kenneth Uemura asked Kishimoto, “Part of the BOE resolution and the MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the HSTA, which includes your reopening plan, was to have guidance from the DOH, so what were the conditions that you used to support your decision to reopen the schools without the DOH guidance? Because we don’t even have that today and you mentioned that they’re working on it, and the schools theoretically have opened on Aug. 17. So if you can just address that?”

Kishimoto answered by saying, “Without completely speaking for the DOH, but certainly talking from the DOE perspective, DOH has issued a number of documents and they have a website that connects what they’re issuing with CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance. That’s what they’re considering their guidance. We don’t tell them how to create their work. That was their response.

“The work around the triggers was the piece that was still outstanding. So for us, we certainly are waiting for that. They’re working certainly within the timeline that the governor has set, and so that’s work that sits outside of us, but is important to us,” Kishimoto said.

Uemura, like the HSTA and others, was clearly not satisfied with non-specific guidance and approval of school reopening by Health Director Bruce Anderson that HIDOE posted on its website, without providing specific triggers for when schools are safe or should send students home because of outbreaks.

“I read the memo from (Health Director) Bruce Anderson and I didn’t think that really fulfilled what we required, so I’m very disappointed,” Uemura said.

Kishimoto said CASs have different distance or in-person plans for first quarter

Kishimoto said she plans to meet with complex area superintendents next week to discuss whether schools should plan for distance learning through at least the first quarter, and suggested that the decision will likely be complex specific.

“We have some complex area superintendents that were ready with their principals to say let’s go the whole quarter, and others that were saying look, I have some other data and some feedback from community saying okay, we’ll do this four weeks, but at fifth week, we need to get back to blended (learning),” she said, citing family concerns over connectivity or high needs issues. “That’s what the leaders are really trying to manage is how do we support our community and make a good decision based on the data, so I think giving them, in all fairness, they’ve asked for this time to make that decision.”

As of Thursday, Kishimoto told the board two complex area superintendents say their schools want to remain with distance learning through the first quarter. She said another two CASs saying they hear that their communities want to get back to school because of connectivity issues and other problems. She did not specify which complexes she was talking about.

HIDOE leaders clarify the parameters of telework

Kileigh Sanchez, an art teacher from Waianae Intermediate told the board, “I'm speaking today on behalf of all teachers who are forced to teach from empty classrooms. We have been denied the right to telework though a vast majority of teachers desire and have the ability to do so well.

“We should have the right to choose if we need to get into our classrooms or teach from home, which gives us more time for our students,” Sanchez said.

“Stop saying principals or CASs (complex area superintendents) are to blame because I have the most caring and intelligent principal, and he would let us work from home if it wasn't being told to him under the table to not allow it. You are denying the students’ right to a quality education by forcing teachers to do what has been deemed unsafe for our students to come on campus every day and waste time sitting in empty classes when there are thousands of us who desire to telework. We don't all need markers and whiteboards every day in our quote unquote schoolhouses,” Sanchez testified.

“It would go a long way in boosting morale when teachers are starting to resign and find other jobs. If we aren't babysitters, then prove it and treat us like we don't need to be babysat ourselves. I'm sick of the double standard of DOE officials working from home while we are not afforded the same choice as if we are replaceable workers,” she said.

In recent days, teachers have told the HSTA that while their principals have approved telework applications, complex area superintendents have overruled the principals and rejected those approvals.

Testimony from several teachers, including Sanchez, led BOE member Bruce Voss to ask Kishimoto, “In light of some of the testimony we heard today, might you consider directing schools to permit more teachers to do their distance teaching from home if they can show that it's necessary or beneficial in their personal circumstances?”

Kishimoto answered, “I have heard from teachers who want to have access to campuses and be able to teach from campus, and I've heard from teachers who want distance learning, and I've reiterated we have a distance work approach and policy that allows for supervisors to make that decision. 

“I have never told anyone they should not honor telework. In fact, we were very strategic about making sure that that telework system is in place so that it is an important tool that we can use in these uncertain times, and to be able to provide flexibility while still holding to our accountability,” Kishimoto added. “I've heard teachers and other staff members today make comments that I take to heart. I don't want anyone thinking that we don't trust our staff. That's not what this is about. This is about making sure we have comprehensive systems in place at each school base level and each department to make sure the work gets done and it gets done really well.

“What the complex area superintendents are doing that I absolutely support is that they're telling their principals, don't jump to a decision because there's this demand. Let's make sure you're being planful. I'm going to support your process for making these decisions, and so I completely support that,” Kishimoto continued. “I do feel that there's a certain amount of I've got to get out of the schools’ ways right now, so they can lead from that level. I have great leaders in place, and I have great teachers and staff in place, and they can, at the school base level, design how to appropriately do this.”

Assistant Superintendent Cindy Covell said while the policy allows principals to make decisions on telework, “what we’re learning as we go through this journey is that they (principals) prefer to have the teachers in the classroom.

“It is still relatively new for a lot of our teachers, and if they're at the school, in their classroom conducting distance learning, they have already automatic supports there,” Covell explained. “So they have the internet. They have the tools they need. They have technical support. They have coaching support. There are other teachers they can collaborate with. So the principals would like to have their teachers in their classrooms at the school as we go through this process of getting better and better at distance learning.

“The other part is, just looking at other states who are struggling with the same things we are with distance learning and with telework, is that we have found that students that are at home and they’re able to see their teacher in the classroom as the teacher’s teaching, it makes them feel more connected to the school and the teacher in that environment,” Covell added.

Related Story: Know Your Rights: Teachers and telework

Principal, student raise serious concerns about in-person schooling

Alexandra Obra, the principal at Waiahole Elementary on Oahu, told board members that one of her employees recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“I had to test for COVID-19 as I came into close contact with the employee who tested positive at my school,” Obra said.

In all her years of service to HIDOE, she said, “This has been the most stressful experience that I have faced as a school leader. I am physically and mentally exhausted.”

“If a principal tests positive for COVID-19, who will run the school? At Waiahole Elementary School, I do not have the personnel to move around to help run the school while I am out. While we were dealing with the positive COVID-19 case, the following staff members were out due to testing: my SASA (school administrative services assistant), myself, the school health aide, my custodian, the substitute custodian, a special education teacher, and three educational assistants,” Obra said.

“I ask you again, who will run the school in my absence? Is there a contingency plan for when the principal tests positive from COVID-19? I am disheartened and extremely frustrated with the lack of support that I am receiving during this time to do my job. As frontline workers, we need support and clear processes to help guide our decision-making at the school level. I urge you to make the correct decisions and the best decisions to keep our keiki, our teachers, our staff members, and our community safe,” Obra said.

Maiya Leibowitz, an 11-year-old entering the sixth grade at Kailua Elementary asked the BOE to allow her to attend virtual school until it is clearly safe to attend face to face.

“I love school, I love my teachers, and I love my friends, but right now, it's just not safe. We shut down schools when we had 20 cases of COVID every day. Well now we have about 200, and yet we are still going ahead with the plan to open schools face to face in about three and a half weeks. I say this as a kid, but also as a sister to a 5-year-old. The plans in place are completely unrealistic,” Leibowitz said.

“You cannot expect kids to stay six feet apart and wear masks for seven hours all day every day. You can hardly expect adults to do this, much less a 5-year-old. At this rate, we are not going to go from 200 cases to zero, or at least a safe amount in three and a half week’s time, and opening up before it is safe will just raise cases,” she testified.

“More people will get sick and fatalities will most likely rise. These are not just numbers on a screen. These are human lives. So instead of rushing forward with an unsafe plan to open face to face, we should take this time to build a solid distance learning plan, finding ways for kids with special needs to get what they need, making sure everyone has tools and an environment they need to learn. Lastly, no one could have prepared for this, but now we have time to, and we need to take it, making sure that we can get the most out of school while staying safe at home,” Leibowitz concluded.

Teachers say some classes lack sufficient personal protective equipment

Rebecca Hadley-Schlosser teaches students with special needs at Nanaikapono Elementary on Oahu’s Leeward Coast.

“According to Superintendent Kishimoto, all schools have PPE. This is not true,” Hadley-Schlosser said.

Teachers at her school received sufficient PPE because her principal ordered early on, but she said, “This is not the case across the state. Let me share some examples with you. One teacher I know has only received a pair of gloves and a mask. Another has not received anything, being told that it’s all on backorder. We were told that some special education teachers would be provided with gowns and other PPE that they have not received yet. When you are dealing with bodily fluids on a daily basis, how can you ensure your personal safety when your employer does not do this?”

Derek Govin, a special education teacher for students with severe special needs at Roosevelt High, told the BOE, “I have five contracted skills trainers and RBTs (registered behavior technicians) that I was given on Wednesday of this week to set up for the school year. They showed up with only a cloth mask. Their companies provided them with no training and no PPE at all, especially not medical grade. So who is responsible for this when they get sick from inevitably breaking the six-feet distance norm?”

Govin said teachers are extremely stressed because, “It's that things change weekly, plans have to be adjusted, and I have not had adequate time to prepare this virtual program for each individual student. I'm a good special education teacher, and to be clear, my students rocked virtual learning with me over quarter four. I love my profession, but I hate waiting for a mess which could be resolved with more planning time. I'm happy to work on a committee as a SPED teacher to develop appropriate next steps. This being said, I must be opposed to discussion item regarding reopening of schools face-to-face. With respect, I’m urging you to please hear me. Allow us more time to prepare appropriate virtual and face-to-face programs for a time when it is safe to open schools again.”