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Hawaii teachers union, superintendent spar over schools reopening

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The teachers union said Thursday it will file labor complaints against the state to try to stop plans to reopen public schools on Monday that it says could endanger its members.

“The DOE (Department of Education) is being reckless and is putting our students, our teachers and our community at risk,” Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said at a virtual news conference.

But Superintendent Christina Kishimoto called the last-minute threat “unconscionable,” saying the union insisted that teachers get extensive training but now won’t let them spend a few days helping kids get launched for distance learning.

“Mr. Rosenlee encouraged teachers to show up for paid training days over the past two weeks, and now he is telling teachers not to show up for students,” she said. “The union demanded this additional training for teachers, at a cost of nine fewer instructional days for students, but is trying to prevent students from having the same opportunity.”

HSTA plans to file a prohibited practice complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and a class grievance against the state of Hawaii and the Department of Education, Rosenlee said. The union believes that students should not be on campus at all.

“The state has refused HSTA’s demand to bargain over the change of working conditions in light of the exponential growth of COVID-19,” Rosenlee said. “HSTA is also requesting that the Hawaii Labor Relations Board issue a declaratory ruling that the state’s plan of action violated the relevant workforce safety rules by forcing teachers into a hazardous workplace.”

Since the legal complaints will take time, the union is emailing teachers to remind them of their rights to take personal leave or sick leave next week.

Public schools are set to reopen on Monday, with students coming to campus on a staggered basis over the first four days, as needed, for training on distance learning platforms, to meet their teachers and resolve connectivity issues. Many parents asked for paper packets of instructional materials in the spring when schools shut down due to the pandemic.

“Now everyone will be doing distance learning,” Kishimoto said. “That’s the big difference.”

Some students must have in-person support to get started, she said. They may know how to use a computer, but they need to understand the online platform, how they get feedback, where they post their materials, and so on, she said. Others need equipment and to resolve connectivity issues.

“Now that we are a day and a half before kids arrive, it is absolutely irresponsible and uncon­- scionable to say that we’re not going to be there for kids,” the superintendent said in an interview. “This kind of fearmongering at the last minute, it’s really upsetting.”

“Our students have physically been out of school since spring break,” she said. “It’s time we all put the futures of our students first. That’s what our keiki truly deserve.”

Some schools are offering drive-by options to families to pick up tech equipment and materials. Parents whose students are already prepared for distance learning may get started from home without coming to campus.

Dr. Scott Miscovich, president of Premier Medical Group, also appeared at the union’s news conference, saying that the state is in a critical phase in the pandemic that will affect “the life and safety of everyone in the state of Hawaii.” He warned that more children across the country are catching and transmitting the virus, posing risks to their families and others.

“This disease is spread through respiratory transmission and respiratory droplets,” he said. “We’ve clearly identified that the risk of spread is within enclosed environments where you have groups of people together. A classroom is a perfect place for this disease to spread.”

Hawaii’s public schools originally planned to start with “blended learning,” rotating smaller numbers of students on campus at any one time, but opted to use distance learning at least for the first four weeks because of the recent rise in cases.

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