While teachers returned to Hawaii public school campuses last week, the statewide system’s 179,000 students, who had been scheduled to start the 2020-21 year this Tuesday, are now planning to resume their COVID-19-interrupted studies on Aug. 17.
The delay, approved by the state Board of Education on Thursday, follows heavy pushback from teachers and principals who have rightly asserted that more time is needed for training on health and safety measures, and on distance or blended learning before class instruction can get underway.
Also, in this extended prep time the state Department of Education (DOE) — in tandem with the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) and individual school communities across the islands — must hunker down and map out a clear plan for addressing lingering concerns, such as how parents and the public will be informed if there are infection outbreaks, and how they will be handled.
Upfront transparency and robust sharing of information with school communities will be key to successfully moving through this unprecedented school year. Since COVID-19 brought on-campus classroom instruction to a sudden halt in March, students have lost dozens of in-person instructional days. Safeguards must be in place to prevent any further delay in recouping learning losses.
DOE officials last week revealed to news media that six cases of COVID-19 had been reported since June 26 in connection with summer school, with each involving either a student, an employee or service provider. In such cases, DOE notifications go only to individuals directly affected. The state Health Department, meanwhile, takes the lead on publicly reporting individual positive cases, in compliance with laws on privacy related to schools and health.
The state’s chain of responsibility aside, this sort of muted reporting, which largely leaves the public in the dark — in the absence of media inquiry — undermines public confidence. The DOE and DOH must craft a more candid communications protocol through which parents are quickly notified about the basics of COVID-19 cases by way of email and text messages.
Further, Corey Rosenlee, president of the HSTA, which represents 13,700 public and charter school teachers across the state, is correct in repeatedly pointing out that state officials should hammer out more “specific criteria so everyone is clear about when we will have to partially or fully close public schools on different islands or throughout the state” due to a rise in cases.
In Colorado, officials recently released guidance specifying a set of school responses to an outbreak, which it defines as as two or more confirmed cases at a facility. In New York City, schools will only open if the city’s rate of positive coronavirus tests is lower than 3% using a rolling seven-day average. Hawaii, too, should be providing the public with straight-forward risk-management parameters for school operations.
In regards to “learning models,” principals and staff were recently tasked with selecting 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. And while that plan is encouraging, also among the now-nagging concerns is how the state will cope with an expected teacher shortage.
In recent years, the annual shortage has hovered at about 1,000 teachers, according to HSTA. And due to COVID-19, the supply of substitute teachers could shrink. “There are many subs who are retired teachers who will not be willing to teach in this environment because they are in various high-risk categories,” Rosenlee said.
The countdown is on for Hawaii’s pubic schools to swiftly address reopening worries before welcoming back students — now set, with some relief, in two weeks.