Hawaii’s public schools and the teachers’ union have agreed that students desks will be spaced six feet apart in classrooms in the new academic year, with anything less requiring a special exception.
The decision comes after an outpouring of testimony Thursday at a Board of Education meeting, with more than 2,000 teachers pleading for six feet of separation. Representatives of the board and Department of Education met with Hawaii State Teachers Association negotiators Friday and over the weekend to resolve the issue.
The original memorandum of understanding between the department and the union had called for six feet of separation “whenever possible.” But schools also planned to follow guidance from the Department of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which allowed desks to be as close as three feet under certain circumstances.
Under the new agreement reached Monday, all meeting spaces and classrooms in public schools will be configured to allow six feet of separation. If a school wants to use a shorter distance, it must request a contract exception no later than July 21.
“The Hawaii Department of Education and HSTA both recognize the importance of creating a safe learning environment for our students and staff that also mitigates further disruption in education caused by the pandemic,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto wrote in a letter (see below) to HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck. “The intent of this agreement is to balance these two goals as best as possible under these circumstances.”
Requests for less than six feet of separation will be reviewed by a committee made of up two members appointed by the union and two by the department.
“Desks placed less than six feet apart should be the exception to the rule, and there should be clear and specific reasons that would justify an exception and how the added risk is mitigated by other actions such as mandatory face coverings,” the union said in a statement.
“While there are no specific criteria for an exception, HSTA will look very closely at any school’s request,” the union added. “We will review the rationale for the submission, the involvement and support of the teachers on that campus, and all of the health and safety factors that would help to mitigate risk to adults and children by configuring classrooms at a distance of less than six feet.”
The letter from Kishimoto also specified that teachers will be able to make the call regarding the use of face masks and when they may be removed.
“Classroom teachers make decisions in their classrooms throughout the school day based on the instructional methods they are using for curriculum delivery,” Kishimoto wrote. “This may create a need for putting on or taking off masks, therefore, in compliance with HSTA Memorandum of Understanding School Year 2020-2021 COVID-response, teachers will determine routines and rules related to wearing of face covering in their particular classrooms.”