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Hawaii educators plead for more prep time before students return to school

Plans to reopen public schools Aug. 4 are up in the air after fervent pleas for a delay dominated a Board of Education online meeting, which attracted an unprecedented 1,000-plus listeners and thousands of pages of testimony.

“We do apologize if you were unable to log in,” said board Chairwoman Catherine Payne, noting that Thursday’s Webex meeting exceeded its limit of 1,000 participants. “We’ve just never had this kind of turnout for any of our meetings either in person or on the web.”

The three unions that represent school employees — including principals, teachers, counselors, cafeteria workers and custodians — urged postponing the return of students to campus. They said more needs to be done to prevent possible spread of the new coronavirus, and school employees should start work as scheduled Wednesday and get trained before students return.

“Like our superintendent, we feel for our students and their families who need school to reopen,” said Derek Minakami, principal of Kaneohe Elementary School. “And regardless of the start day, we will work tirelessly to be ready. Yet with the long list of new, unique tasks to complete … coupled with the majority of our staff still on break and not expected to return until just a few days prior to students, more time will benefit and better prepare our schools to reopen safely.”

Board members heard several hours of oral testimony from educators across the state. But ultimately they took no action on the issue because altering the 2020-21 school calendar, which requires negotiation with the unions, was not on the agenda, and public notice had not been given. Instead, the board decided to meet again in an emergency session next week to deal with it.

Sentiment was overwhelming that teachers and principals wanted more time to clarify what procedures are needed for a safe return and for training on health protocols as well as providing distance learning. Some edu­cators thought in-person instruction was too dangerous at this point in the pandemic.

“The question about reopening schools should not be about how much risk can teachers and staff take; it should be how much risk can we avoid,” said Michael Haring, a teacher at Keonepoko Elementary in Pahoa. “If we reopen school buildings on Aug. 4, we will not be excluding vectors of transmission. … The school buses, the lack of a mask mandate and the fallacy of a classroom bubble will enable community transmission.”

“Postpone the reopening of in-person instruction at public schools,” Haring advised. “I believe many of our keiki’s needs can and should be met through distance learning at this time.”

Board member Maggie Cox said principals had asked for several more days for training, while board member Dwight Takeno recommended pushing back the return of students until Aug. 18.

“I believe that the board should acknowledge and recognize the concerns about safety and health protocol measures and guidance that still remain unresolved and unanswered in the minds of not only teachers, but school-level staff and administrators,” Takeno said.

“These individuals believe that they are taking a risk in providing testimony before the board today,” he said. “And if their words fall on deaf ears, my fear is that the board will lose all trust and faith in a time where we all need to work collectively together.”

“Regardless of whether these issue and concerns have merit, I believe it is our responsibility as a board to ensure … that they are addressed and resolved before the schools are reopened to students,” Takeno said.

Kayleigh Concepcion, who teaches at Waianae High, said she believes that face-to-face instruction is the most effective method but that “to place students back in school puts the lives of students, staff, their families and the greater Hawaii community at risk.”

“While distance learning may not have the face-to-face component that we all desire, it does offer more flexibility within the ever-­changing status of the public health crisis at hand,” Concepcion testified. “We can find solutions within distance learning that will provide a much more solid curriculum, routine and instruction if we are not having to change plans at every turn. Because of that, distance learning is the better option, and I urge you to reconsider it as the path moving forward.”

Jennifer Corpion, an English teacher at Kahuku High and Intermediate School, summed it up this way in her written testimony: “I feel more safe doing food deliveries for DoorDash than I do going back to my classroom.”

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