Teachers’ Union Demands Safety for Students Amid Rising Cases
August 18, 2021, 4:57 PM HST
* Updated August 20, 12:40 PM
The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association held a virtual news conference to announce an official demand for impact bargaining and share an open letter to HIDOE Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi, the Hawaiʻi Board of Education and Chair Catherine Payne, and Gov. David Y. Ige.
This letter, signed by public school educators, calls for increased safety and response in light of rising COVID-19 cases.
“Health and safety guidelines, including proper masking and social distancing, go unenforced in our schools. Reporting and notification remain inconsistent. A lack of personal protective equipment, improper ventilation, and other outstanding issues are not being addressed,” according to the letter.
Osa Tui, Jr., HSTA president said the demand letter calls for negotiations with regards to changes in teachers terms and conditions of employment for this school year. An open letter was signed by nearly 2,000 of the 13,500 members across the state calling on decision makers to join them in finding solutions that “acknowledge the reality” of the current conditions.
A list of concerns identified in the HSTA letter included: crowded classrooms, large in-person meetings, protocols ignored or unenforceable, lack of notification and inconsistent response, discrepancies in reporting, insufficient sanitation, and poor ventilation.
On Friday, the state Department of Education reported 325 confirmed cases across public school campuses in the state between Aug. 7 and 13, which was the first full week of school for many campuses.
On Maui, there were 39 cases reported last week, including 11 at Kahului Elementary on Maui, the most of any in the state. This resulted in quarantine for multiple students and classrooms, according to HSTA representatives.
“It’s no secret and it’s public knowledge that Kahului Elementary School has the most cases as of last week… The last that I had heard, it was six classrooms that were in quarantine,” said Lisa Morrison, HSTA secretary-treasurer, and Maui High School arts and communication teacher. “And that obviously has to do with the fact that young children will be doing activities and things that keep them closer in contact than would be revealed than by just a seating chart,” she said.
According to Morrison, the biggest problem she’s heard of is that there is a shortage of adults available to supervise the rest of the children who are still at school.
“I know that other schools have had to send staff in order to help out–which just means that we have a larger number of people who are moving in and out–inevitably–which is problematic,” said Morrison. “It’s very hard to get substitutes, because you could imagine that a substitute would not really be eager to go into a school that has a high number of COVID cases. And I’m concerned because since the department did not have a plan from the beginning to do this safely, that it’s more of a disruption to school than we had at times last year.”
Tui called it “hypocritical” for the state to limit indoor social gatherings to 10 or fewer, but allow class sizes in the upper 20s, 30s and even into the 40s. “It just does not make sense,” said Tui. “Last year we had a memorandum of understanding that allowed schools to switch to alternative modes of instruction including distance and hybrid. But the state refused to bargain a new MOU for this school year, insisting instead that all schools would return to in-person learning with very limited alternatives.”
Prior to the start of the school year, the HIDOE released a list of schools offering distance learning programs. For complex areas that had determined it was not feasible to offer a school- or complex-based distance learning option due to low demand or capacity, the HIDOE reported that it partnered with these complex areas “to pool resources and expertise and reduce the burden on individual schools.”
A day ahead of opening schools, Governor David Ige said schools across the country have been able to reopen for in-person learning “in a safe and health way.” He said that children benefit greatly from in-person learning noting that, “so much of the learning occurs in that interaction between other students as well as the teacher in the classroom.”
On Maui, Mayor Michael Victorino had asked that the start of in-classroom learning be postponed, but his request failed to gain the support of the governor. Health officials at the time had said a rise in cases would happen regardless of when school started, and pointed to the logistics of getting 180,000 people back together on campus.
Before school started, mitigation strategies were outlined by health officials and the Department of Education, encouraging vaccinations for those who are eligible, staying home when sick, correct mask wearing, and good hand hygiene.