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Department of Education maintains Hawaii schools are safe

State schools interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi on Wednesday insisted that schools remain a safe environment for students and staff despite the COVID-19 safety concerns expressed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

In a statement, Hayashi said the schools are doing everything within their control to implement strategies set by the state Department of Health, and the evidence so far indicates the efforts are working.

“While community transmission levels have increased, we have no known cases of students getting sick with COVID-19 as a result of coming to school and there is no evidence indicating our schools are amplifiers of transmission,” he said.

Hayashi added that it is the department’s duty and responsibility to keep the schools open for students who not only need in-person learning, but also socialization, services tied to mental health and even meals.

The union representing more than 13,000 public school teachers in Hawaii on Wednesday formally demanded to enter into negotiations with the state Department of Education in regard to working conditions and the safety of students and employees at risk from the pandemic.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association submitted the demand for negotiations Wednesday morning to Hayashi and Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne, in addition to presenting an open letter signed by nearly 2,000 educators describing protocol deficiencies and asking for changes that would make schools safer.

During a midday news conference, HSTA leaders recounted numerous reports by teachers that suggest the schools are not following COVID-19 protocols as strictly as the department says they are.

Last year there was a memorandum of understanding between the teachers and the department that allowed schools to switch between modes of instruction, such as in-person to hybrid and distance learning depending on levels of community transmission.

But the department refused to bargain on the memorandum for this year, union leaders said, and instead insisted on in-person learning with only limited alternatives.

“Enough is enough,” said Osa Tui Jr., HSTA president. “We need the department, the board and the governor to work with us so we can all truly ensure the safety our students deserve.”

Asked to respond, Gov. David Ige issued this statement:

“We have been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education on mitigation measures and making changes where appropriate. I firmly believe that in- person learning is best for the academic and emotional development of Hawaii’s keiki and I’m open to further discussions on keeping students and teachers safe and healthy in our public schools.”

Payne said she too is open to further discussion regarding the safety of schools.

“We definitely need to be talking to each other,” she said.

The state Board of Education meets this afternoon and is expected to get an earful from both teachers and parents worried about the pandemic’s impact on the system’s 257 schools.

Payne said former superintendent Christina Kishi­moto decided not to renegotiate the memorandum of understanding with the union because she felt it would not be necessary for a new year focused on in-person learning and aiming to make up for the learning loss that plagued students the previous year.

But now there isn’t a contingency plan for what to do if things get really bad with the virus, Payne said.

The delta variant drove new infections to unprecedented levels in Hawaii just as educators were preparing for the new school year. While the state was cruising along with an average of about 50 new daily cases in early July, daily case counts shot up to triple digits by the end of the month, and now the average sits at about 650 cases.

“We all sort of walked blindly into the new year because we didn’t think it would be necessary,” Payne said.

Tui said many teachers oversee packed classes and have little opportunity to keep students at a safe distance.

“More and more we’re seeing schools shut down classrooms and quarantine dozens upon dozens of students at a time,” he said. “There are just not enough substitute teachers out there to cover for teachers who are told not to report to work.”

Among other things, union leaders said they are disappointed the department didn’t plan for more remote learning opportunities and that there are no thresholds for when to close a school.

“What will it take for those in power to come to their senses and realize that schools are not the safe spaces they are purported to be,” Tui said.

Tui said it’s hypocritical of the governor to limit indoor social gatherings to 10 or fewer but allow class sizes in the upper 20s, 30s and even into the 40s.

“It just does not make sense,” he said.

Lisa Morrison, HSTA secretary-treasurer and Maui High School arts and communication teacher, said teachers face a lot of inconsistent adherence to health guidance by administrators.

“Cohorting sounds like a great mitigation strategy,” she said. “It’s not realistic to what happens in public education, and it’s impossible to cohort in middle school and high school.”

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