Hawaii’s public schools will start the academic year on Aug. 17, nearly two weeks later than planned, to allow for more preparation and staff training given the coronavirus pandemic, the Board of Education decided today.
The current surge in COVID-19 cases in Hawaii heightened the sense of risk for educators and parents, many of whom called not only for a delay but asked to start with distance learning rather than in-person instruction.
The board voted 7 to 1 to postpone the start of school in response to a flood of testimony from teachers, principals and staff in recent weeks. Teachers returned to campuses Wednesday and students were due back on Aug. 4, but Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and unions representing school employees jointly recommended the later start date.
Listen to the audio feed of today’s virtual meeting at this facebook link.
Shortly before the board meeting began, Hawaii reported a daily record of 124 new cases, including 32 children.
“We are seeing a dramatic spike in COVID in Hawaii — 124 today,” Burke Burnett, parent of an eighth grader at Kaimuki High School, told the Board of Education. “It is obvious to any reasonable, responsible, informed person that now is not the time to reopen in-person classroom instruction.”
“The current reopening plan is reckless,” he said. “It will make people sick. Some of them will die. It is that simple… I urge the Board of Education to consider a phased reopening plan such as proposed by our grassroots group ‘Hawaii for a Safe Return to Schools.’”
That informal group is made up of teachers and parents, and its “4 Phase Plan” was endorsed by numerous people who submitted testimony today. The plan calls for starting off with training for educators, distribution of technology equipment to families, an assessment of indoor ventilation on campuses, and ordering of supplies.
The second phase would be “100% online teacher-led classes” while campuses modify ventilation as needed and set up schools to minimize person-to-person contact. Based on clear benchmarks of disease trends, schools would later move to a hybrid of online and in-person instruction, with no more than 12 people in a classroom and mandatory mask use. The fourth phase would be a full return to school, with an option for online learning.
The board, however, also heard from some parents who want their children back on campus on Aug. 4 as originally scheduled.
“My children need to be in school to learn and catch up on the loss of education they had since March of this year,” Betty Tamayo wrote in her testimony. “Distance learning is NOT an option for working parents.”
Hawaii law calls for 180 instructional days in an academic year and the Aug. 17 start cuts off nine of those days, but three may be restored through negotiation with the unions.
Board member Bruce Voss was the only one to oppose delaying the start of school, calling it “a very bad deal for students.”
“I think we should reject this schedule and I think instruction should begin in distance learning at all schools, and then each school should determine when it’s ready to resume in person,” he said. “We as a board should not be taking away from our students any more instructional days that they are entitled to by law. To me that’s just wrong.”
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers, which together represent school employees including teachers, principals and custodians, offered joint testimony asking for the later start.
They asked for training and practice on new protocols such as: use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfection, physical distancing, health and safety protocols, and configuring classrooms and other school spaces. Educators also sought professional development on blended learning programs and virtual instruction, handling students with special needs, and clear contingency plans for when COVID-19 cases crop up and classrooms or buildings are shut down.