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Pay boost attracts more special-education teachers in Hawaii

The teacher shortage eased in Hawaii’s public schools this fall, propelled in part by a $10,000 annual pay boost for special-education teachers that went into effect in January.

The number of teacher vacancies in special education dropped to 69 as of Oct. 1 from 112 a year earlier, out of 2,180 positions, according to the Department of Education. The vacancies are filled by emergency hires who are not fully qualified.

Cynthia Covell, assistant superintendent for the Office of Talent Management, shared the numbers in response to a question about the impact of the pay differential at a briefing Tuesday held by the House Lower and Higher Education Committee on school reopening plans.

“I would like to say that it’s had the desired effect,” Covell said. “That is one of the lowest (vacancy) rates we’ve seen in quite a while. … It’s not good until it’s zero, but it’s definitely had an effect.”

The pay boost helped retain current special-education teachers, recruit new ones and lure back those who had shifted to general education, she said.

For the 2020-21 school year, 129 teachers moved into special education, a big jump from the 73 who did so last year, Covell said. In addition, 1,733 special-education teachers chose to stay in the field, up from 1,685 retained the previous year.

Teacher vacancies overall also dropped across the board this year. When general education and special ed vacancies are combined, the number fell to 330 on Oct. 1, down from 410 a year earlier.

Teachers in hard-to-staff areas and Hawaiian-language immersion also received pay differentials starting in January that ranged from $3,000 to $8,000 annually.

“We are very pleased to report that this year we are seeing the lowest amount of teacher vacancies ever as well as special ed vacancies,” said Superintendent Christina Kishimoto. “This is a huge credit to our teaching workforce. Our teachers have just shown, as they always have, tremendous commitment to teaching and learning and supporting our students.”

There are 12,922 teachers employed by the Department of Education as of this week. The average salary for licensed teachers last year was $68,000, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

While most students are still in distance learning, public schools are gradually bringing more children back to campus, especially those having trouble with online classes. Priority is also going to early and transition grades such as kindergarten and grades 6, 9 and 12.

A dashboard at the Department of Education’s website illustrates the status of different islands given Department of Health guidelines for reopening of schools and their COVID-19 situation. It is available online at bit.ly/RTLdashboard.

The dashboard’s maps show that as of Nov. 10, Oahu, Hawaii island and Lanai were at the “orange” level, which means they can offer blended learning. Meanwhile, Kauai, Maui and Molokai were green, allowing in-person learning for all.

Decisions are being made at the school level, by principals and complex-area superintendents, based on case counts, ability to enforce health and safety protocols and facility and workforce capacity.

“The department is committed to successfully implementing blended models by early January when students return from winter break,” the DOE said in written responses to questions from the committee.

While in “blended learning” mode, which rotates in-person and online learning, schools operate at around 50% capacity under a Board of Education policy.

Kishimoto cited the Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua complex as an example of how different schools are handling the situation.

Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School on Schofield Barracks has its kindergarten- through-second grade back on campus every day, she said. Mililani Uka Elementary is using a blended rotation model for all students in kindergarten through grade 5, with half on campus at any one time.

Meanwhile, Kipapa Elementary, in response to feedback from parents, decided to start with just kindergarten and first graders on campus. Waialua High and Intermediate brought back its seventh and eighth graders to campus for in-person instruction every day because they were struggling the most with online classes.

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