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Editorial: Put students first as schools reopen

Nobody ever expected planning for in-person learning amidst the coronavirus was going to be a straightforward path, which is one reason why state health and education officials were so tardy in releasing the Guidance for Schools, well after classes had begun.

When at last the guidance was released on Thursday, it became clear why this is such a conundrum. Schools are under tremendous pressure to deliver quality education to students who already have lost some ground last spring and this fall due to distance-learning challenges.

Difficult as this is, the state’s schools simply can’t indefinitely postpone the transition to a “new normal.”

Under a new roadmap, some campuses could start alternating online classes with face-to-face teaching later this fall, though schools are expected to continue with distance learning when the second quarter starts Oct. 12. The degree to which students would return to campus would be based on the number of positive COVID-19 cases per 10,000 population over a 14-day period, by island.

This is already being assailed by some teacher advocates as moving too quickly toward repopulating schools. There are scant models for success elsewhere in the country, they say, at least not in a place where school communities are contending with comparable challenges with COVID-19 infections.

In any case, it may be far too early for any school district across the troubled U.S. pandemic landscape to have found precisely the right formula. Hawaii’s guidance was drawn partly from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisories, adapting some rulemaking for schools in Minnesota and elsewhere, according to the state Department of Education. It hasn’t prevented outbreaks in Minnesota, for example.

However, what’s most critical to finding the right path for Hawaii is that the state Department of Education is nimble and transparent enough to react when cases inevitably arise. The DOE also must take individual school circumstances into account and allow flexibility for principals and educators who know their campuses best.

The guidance issued needs to be seen in just those terms: a starting point for decisions, not the full basis for a course correction. For the public schools, decisions would be up to school complex area superintendents.

One of the chief fears of the Hawaii State Teachers Association is that the DOE has not shown adherence to preliminary guidelines on distancing and sanitation and will take too few precautions as the school year moves ahead. To put it mildly, the public schools’ teachers union is leery about the state’s advisory, which also was offered to private schools.

The HSTA raises some valid concerns — including the lack of teachers’ voices in the policymaking so far. To its credit, the union has been the driving force to get clearer protocols in place to begin with. There does need to be more collaboration and clarity, involving broader school communities to find solutions when problems arise.

But this is an evolving, risk-reduction process. It makes sense to have a framework that serves as a starting point, with measures of the community infection rates signalling that change may be needed. The guidance, developed by epidemiological experts, leaves room for decisions to be made based on very local conditions.

The guidance document, posted on the Department of Health home page (health.hawaii.gov) includes 28 pages in all, but all eyes tend to focus on Page 2. That’s where metrics are posted, intended to outline when a school should consider moving from distance learning toward more in-person instruction.

After the metrics were presented by Dr. Sarah Kemble, the acting state epidemiologist, Corey Rosenlee, HSTA president, said he was “shocked” by the “dangerous” allowances for increasing on-campus interactions among students, teachers and staff.

It’s an understandable reaction, given the recent death of a Dole Middle School staff member to COVID-19. HSTA members voiced some of their worry in testimony presented Thursday to the state Board of Education. More teachers want the opportunity to work from home.

Without a doubt, there has been no template for any of this, and managing school populations, especially young ones, will be difficult. In a very real sense, teachers are working under unprecedented hazard conditions, expected to adapt on the fly both to minimize their own risk and to get their work done effectively.

They should get full assurances for having personal protective equipment (PPE), and for work environments that meet the protocols of sanitation laid out in the guidance. They also should have insulation, as other front-line state workers, from salary cuts that seem now to be all but inevitable.

Ultimately, however, it’s the needs of the students that form the north star guiding education. The schools need to navigate — carefully, rationally and with open communication — toward their “new normal” in the age of COVID-19.

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