The Board of Education is holding a special meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday to consider postponing the start of the new academic year for public school students until Aug. 17 to allow more time for training of school staff.
At last week’s board meeting, thousands of pages of testimony were submitted, much of it from educators calling for a delay from the start date of Aug. 4. School employees said new guidance and procedures for education in an era of COVID-19 needed to be clarified and practiced before educators began working with students. But the school calendar was not on the agenda, so no action could be taken.
Late Monday, the department and public employee unions agreed to propose Aug. 17 to the board as the date for students to begin instruction. Teachers and staff are scheduled to return to campus Wednesday in any case.
The deal would give teachers another nine full days to prepare, on top of the four days normally allotted at the start of the academic year. It would replace the original plan for students to attend school only in the mornings for two weeks starting Aug. 4, with teacher training in the afternoon.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto says she and other department leaders have been working with the unions throughout the pandemic “to ensure our students get the education they deserve and our employees have a safe work environment.”
“Throughout our discussions, we were mindful that any adjustments to the calendar must focus on educating and supporting students,” she said. “We also acknowledge the voice of our families, partners and employees who are not represented by the unions yet are impacted by this decision.”
“We will use this time to prepare at yet another level, but I recognize this comes at a cost for public school parents and our students,” Kishimoto said in her statement. “My expectation is that if the board approves the two-week delay, that our labor partners will do an aggressive push to their members to be at schoolhouse doors on day one for our students.”
In an email to members, Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said the extra time is needed for a safe return to school.
“No one wants students back in class more than teachers, but we want to be sure that we’ve been properly trained and supplied to protect against the coronavirus—and we want to fully prepare to conduct virtual learning and serve our students both in-person and online,” he wrote.
The board meeting has three major items on the agenda:
>> Revising the school calendar to add more training time for teachers and staff and to push back the first day for students to ensure health and safety preparations are complete.
>> Acting on a waiver to allow for reducing the 1,080 student instructional hours and 180-day school year as mandated in state law for all public schools other than charter schools. That entails revising the 2020-21 school calendar in consultation with the unions.
>> Action on “board expectations” regarding training days on health, safety and distance learning; beginning the school year in distance learning mode; mandating the wearing of masks on public school campuses; and detailed, written, publicly posted guidance from the state Department of Health.
“While we can never promise that there will be zero risk in our workplaces even during the old, normal times, it is fair for you to expect that your state, complex and school leadership will do all that we can to mitigate the risks that are connected to this pandemic,” board Chairwoman Catherine Payne said at the last meeting.
“Much has been done to accomplish this, and I want to acknowledge the work done by the state office, the complex areas and the schools under the leadership of the principals,” she added. “There was extensive collaboration, and options were developed to address individual school and community needs.”
But she acknowledged the strong sentiment for delay, and the board opted to hold a meeting this week to address those concerns.
On the same day that the board met last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall.” It focused on the benefits of a return to school, especially for the neediest children. It said that “COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children” and that those under 18 account for less than one-tenth of 1% of COVID-19-related deaths.
“International studies that have assessed how readily COVID-19 spreads in schools also reveal low rates of transmission when community transmission is low,” the CDC wrote. “Based on current data, the rate of infection among younger school children, and from students to teachers, has been low, especially if proper precautions are followed. There have also been few reports of children being the primary source of COVID-19 transmission among family members.”
But case counts for COVID-19 are rising substantially in various parts of the country, including the Aloha State, and along with them, so is anxiety, particularly among teachers and staff. While Hawaii’s infection rate has been among the nation’s lowest, new records were set in daily cases reported last week, reaching as high as 73 on Saturday.