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Hawaii public schools set to start Aug. 17

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The state Board of Education voted to push back the start of the academic year to Aug. 17 for public school students as cases of COVID-19 surged to a new high in Hawaii on Thursday.

The news that a record 124 people had been diagnosed with the new coronavirus — 32 of them children — heightened the sense of unease among educators and parents about the original start date of Tuesday.

Many of the people who testified at the board meeting not only asked for a delay, but also advocated beginning the school year in distance-learning mode — but the board declined to recommend that.

Students were originally due back on campus Tuesday. Concern that schools needed more time to prepare, however, prompted the superintendent and school unions to recommend the later start date. The new calendar gives staff nine full days for training on health and safety measures and distance or blended learning before students arrive.

Teachers returned to campuses Wednesday, with nearly 99% reporting to work, according to schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

The board voted 7-1 to postpone the return of students to school in response to a flood of testimony from teachers, principals and staff in recent weeks.

“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 Thursday. “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. 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 Thursday. The plan calls for starting off with training for educators, distribution of technology equipment to families, assessment of indoor ventilation 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.

Some parents, however, wanted their children back on campus Tuesday as originally planned.

“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 some 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.”

Board Chairwoman Catherine Payne, who ran the meeting, did not cast a vote on the calendar issue.

Department of Education spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers confirmed Thursday that six cases of COVID-19 have been reported since June 26 associated with summer school, not eight as the department initially reported Wednesday.

One case was on Kauai and one each at five campuses on Oahu, involving either a student, an employee or service provider, she said, but released no further details. About 8,400 students came to public school campuses this summer for in-person instruction or blended programs, along with teachers and staff members.

The Health Department takes the lead on publicly reporting individual positive cases in order to comply with laws on privacy related to schools and health, Chambers said. The Department of Education’s notifications go only to individuals directly affected by the cases, she said.

Principals and staff at Hawaii’s public schools were given freedom to decide whether they wanted to offer in-person classes or a rotation of distance learning and in-person instruction. All public schools, other than charters, also will offer full distance learning to families who choose it, according to Kishimoto.

She assured board members that schools will not open without sufficient personal protective equipment, and added that the goal is for each campus to have two months of supplies, in keeping with Hawaii Emergency Management Agency guidelines.

Kishimoto also said that substitute teachers would receive one day of pay to cover seven basic training modules on distance learning, each of which is about an hour long.

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