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Telework allowed only on a case-by-case basis for Hawaii public school teachers

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Hundreds of public school teachers pleaded with the Board of Education on Thursday to let them telework given the surge in COVID-19 cases, saying their contract calls for it in emergencies like this.

Many also called for distance learning to be extended to the end of the quarter, stressing that students, staff and families need certainty, not constantly shifting guidance. More than 500 pages of written testimony was submitted.

Lynn Otaguro, a former deputy attorney general who is now a public school teacher, lamented the mixed messages that people are getting.

“When we were clear that it was necessary to lock down, people were good,” Otaguro said. “Now, with worse numbers than in March, we see that the situation is serious. But we only closed down some things and we say it is OK to go to school. Is the situation serious or is it safe?

“Our message must be clear and our actions must match our words if we do not want our schools to become places of transmission,” she said. “This board must determine that there will be no in-person instruction until infection rates drop.”

In the spring, teachers worked from home during the mandatory stay-at-home order, but the current emergency orders banning groups of more than five people do not apply to schools.

Distance learning is in effect until at least Sept. 11 for most public school students, but teachers and staff are still expected to report to work on school campuses. Principals and supervisors have the authority to approve telework requests on a case-by-case basis.

Some students were in classrooms this week for orientations to distance learning and to meet their teachers. Special education students who require services that can’t be provided virtually will continue coming to campus if their parents approve. About 3,000 students fall into that category, out of an enrollment of nearly 180,000 students.

Mahealani Fernandez, a special education teacher, works with kindergartners and first graders, several of whom can’t wear masks due to their disabilities and require “hand over hand support.” She testified that her classroom has “zero social distancing.”

“As cases rise I can’t help but think and worry about which one of my unmasked students is going to infect me,” wrote the single mother of three young children, who also cares for her elderly mother.

“The reality is that we are not able to keep our students or ourselves safe on campus at this time,” she wrote. “We just can’t. If something happens to me, who is going to take care of my children?”

The current Hawaii State Teachers Association contract specifies that “when students are sent home from school or are not required to attend due to emergencies which endanger health or safety, teachers will not be required to remain at, nor report to, said schools.”

Although the issue of teleworking was not on the agenda for action, board member Bruce Voss asked Superintendent Christina Kishimoto to respond to the impassioned testimony.

“We have a situation that needs de-escalating,” Voss said. “Might you consider directing the schools to permit more teachers to do their distance teaching from home if they can show it’s necessary or beneficial?”

Kishimoto responded that because conditions differ around the state, she did not want to mandate from above. Complex area superintendents and principals had asked for the flexibility to determine “where that teaching has to take place to ensure a really strong start of the year,” she said.

“We need to let the principals lead,” Kishimoto said. “I have never told anyone they should not honor telework … Because everything is not equal, I want to give them the space to make those decisions.”

A July 24 memo, issued before the switch to distance learning, said telework decisions could be allowed case by case “as long as employees are fulfilling their usual and customary job duties as if they were in their central work site.” It noted administrators may deny telework requests that are not in the best interest of students or the department.

Board members as well as many of those who submitted more than 500 pages of testimony also sought specific metrics from the Department of Health as to when schools should open and close in light of COVID-19 cases.

Kishimoto said the Health Department met with educators from public and private schools and another meeting is set Monday to firm up measures to determine when schools should be in full distance learning, blended learning or in-person instruction.

Even teachers who are working alone in their classrooms are worried. Katrina Pasion, an English teacher at Campbell High School, said she and her two young children live with her father, who is at high risk of COVID-19. Just reporting to campus raises the chances of them being exposed to the disease.

“I don’t have control of who drops by my classroom,” she wrote. “Even though social distancing is required, it’s anxiety invoking whenever my door opens. It’s stressful to have to tell people to stay away. I’m torn between preserving my health or preserving my relationships.”

“Keeping with Campbell High’s schedule of a minimum of 30 minutes of synchronous class per period, with the remaining time for independent work, will keep teachers accountable for teaching and continue to allow for relationship building with students,” she wrote.

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