More than 2,000 people flooded the Board of Education with written testimony Thursday, most pleading to keep students 6 feet apart and require they wear masks when they return to school next month.
Some suggested postponing the start of school, now set for Aug. 4, or beginning with distance learning rather than allowing kids back on campus given the spike in COVID-19 cases across the United States and in Hawaii.
“Let’s not kid ourselves — what’s being asked of us is a life-and-death decision,” Robin O’Hara, registrar at Kealakehe Inter- mediate on Hawaii island, testified via phone to the board meeting, which was held virtually. “If we don’t have the minimum protection of masks and 6 feet distance, you are putting people’s lives at unnecessary risk.
“We can do distance learning through August and be prepared like the rest of the country,” she added. “We closed schools because of the pandemic, and yet here we are saying it’s safe to open schools while the same pandemic is raging across the country even worse than when we closed the schools in March. This line of thinking makes no sense.”
The board was scheduled to vote on a memorandum of understanding hammered out by the Department of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association that governed conditions for the return to school. Instead, after a meeting that lasted more than four hours, board members voted unanimously to defer that decision.
The HSTA agreement calls for “maintaining six feet … of separation between and among students and staff members in meeting spaces, hallways and exterior school grounds whenever possible.” It also says, “All individuals, including employees, students, and campus visitors should wear face coverings that cover the mouth and nose consistent with public health guidance.”
But teachers rose up in protest after state schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, state Health Director Bruce Anderson and state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said students could be seated as close together as 3 feet in classrooms if they faced the same way, and that masks would be encouraged but not required.
The board delayed approving the agreement Thursday in hopes of ensuring the department irons out the apparent “misunderstanding” about what the memorandum requires in terms of social distancing and face masks. Kishimoto said she was eager to meet with the union to further “clarify” the situation.
Board member Kaimana Barcarse, who was on the negotiating team, suggested deferring the vote.
“It was my understanding when it said ‘6 feet whenever possible’ that 6 feet would be the norm, and anything other than that would be an exception,” Barcarse said. “I am confident we can find some common ground to keep our teachers and students safe and move that forward.”
The agreement has already been approved by the union, the superintendent and Gov. David Ige, which means it is in force, even without board approval. But the deferral aimed to send a message.
“My preference is that whenever there is discretion, we should err on the side of safety or health,” board member Dwight Ta-keno said.
Added fellow board member Kili Namau‘u, “I just want to reassure teachers that we are very grateful for your efforts and your heartfelt testimony were taken in by all of us.”
The board members received more than 2,800 pages of testimony, mostly from educators, and they were personal appeals rather than form letters.
“Allowing students to be less than six feet apart and not wearing masks will drastically increase the odds that someone in my class will be exposed,” wrote Ryan Chatfield, who teaches at Aiea High School and has children at Mililani High and Mililani Middle schools.
“Our odds of being infected as a family are very high,” Chatfield added, noting that she teaches 120 students and her classroom is air-conditioned and lacks windows. “I want to have students learning in the classroom as much as anyone but please give us a fighting chance by mandating six-foot distancing in the classrooms.”
While educators may be wary, many parents say they want their kids back in school. Of the 32,000 parents who took part in an online survey, 84% of parents indicated they preferred in-person learning to distance learning, Kishimoto said.
Since not all students may be in school at the same time, the department plans to give priority for in-person learning to the youngest learners as well as those who are struggling, vulnerable or have special needs, Kishimoto said. With 6-foot distancing, fewer students can be accommodated on campus.
“We are making difficult decisions around how many kids we can educate in person every day,” Kishimoto said. “The goal has been to try not to interrupt another school year.“
Corey Rosenlee, president of the HSTA, warned of a potential exodus of educators, especially if they don’t feel safe. He estimated that 30% to 40% of teachers are in a “high-risk” category when it comes to COVID-19.
“From our poll data, we have seen that 37% of our teachers are considering leaving teaching or retiring because of the coronavirus,” Rosenlee said.
Osa Tui Jr., vice president of HSTA, reflected on the outpouring of testimony.
“We are often asked to speak with one voice on behalf of thousands,” Tui said. “Today you’re hearing from thousands primarily speaking with one voice to implore you to do the right thing.
“We are one of the first public school systems to be opening back up,” he added. “I know that you know that the lives of human beings are at risk here, and I ask that you don’t let us become an experiment or a statistic that you’ll later regret.”