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Parents and teachers criticize Hawaii’s Department of Education as pandemic grows

                                <strong>“Our schools have done a great job welcoming our students back to campus. It will take all of us together to make our schools safe.”</strong>
                                <strong>Keith Hayashi</strong>
                                <em>Interim state schools superintendent</em>
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“Our schools have done a great job welcoming our students back to campus. It will take all of us together to make our schools safe.”

Keith Hayashi

Interim state schools superintendent

Parents and teachers worried about the impact of the growing pandemic on Hawaii’s public schools roundly criticized the state Department of Education on Thursday, saying its efforts to safeguard students are either not working or inadequate.

State school administrators countered that the campuses are safe and that the numbers actually show it.

They said that while the latest weekly count of COVID-19 cases linked to Hawaii’s public schools increased to 383 — up from 325 last week — only 107 of those are known to have had their infections active while on campus.

Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi told the state Board of Education that the numbers indicate there has been no transmission of the virus at any of the schools and that there are no school-related clusters as well.

“The systems are in place to ensure a learning environment that is safe,” the administrator declared.

Hayashi said the department continues to be committed to in-person learning in an effort to make up for widespread learning loss experienced last year and to nurture student socialization, as well as services tied to mental health and meals.

“We owe this to our students, and we must do this together,” he said.

Under questioning by board members, the super­intendent conceded that his staff is investigating alternative forms of instructional delivery in case the highly contagious delta variant ends up causing a school to close.

But the decision to close would be left to the state Department of Health.

Hayashi also said the department is open to modifying its protocols as conditions warrant.

In the meantime, he said, the schools are doing everything within their control to implement the various protocols and strategies set forth by the state Department of Health based on guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The schools are able to stay safe by following a multilayered set of protocols, he said, that include staying home when sick, masking indoors, proper hand hygiene and promoting vaccinations for eligible students.

“Our schools have done a great job welcoming our students back to campus,” Hayashi said. “It will take all of us together to make our schools safe.”

A couple dozen people testified during the virtual board meeting, the first since the start of the school year for Hawaii’s 257 public schools.

A number of the testifiers complained that the department was not offering enough distance-learning options, considering the escalating nature of the pandemic.

Maui parent Cara Flores admonished the department for not doing enough to meet the growing demand for remote learning.

“If one family that wanted distant learning loses a child, that’s on you,” she told board members.

Parent John Johnson said his understanding was the schools were pushing in- person learning in part to help cut back on mental stresses.

“But it’s not good for the parents’ mental health because they’re going to be worrying about their children at school,” he said.

Others complained that health and safety guidelines, including proper masking and social distancing, are going unenforced in many instances and that reporting and notification are inconsistent. They described a lack of personal protective equipment, improper ventilation and inconsistent quarantining protocols.

Burke Burnett, a parent and member of Hawaii for a Safe Return to Schools, said hundreds of parents have indicated in the online forum that guidelines and protocols are not being properly enforced. Many parents, he said, are also outraged they have no distance-learning options.

“We’ve documented an unsafe school reopening,” Burnett said. “Just saying the schools are safe doesn’t make it so.”

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said teachers want the department to meet with them to talk about and adjust the many COVID-19 protocols that he described as impossible to enforce.

“Teachers are frustrated and overwhelmed,” Tui said.

“Stop forcing parents to send their precious keiki to unsafe schools,” added Waiakea High School teacher Mireille Ellsworth.

Administrators told the board that 2,315 students, or 1.4% of the student population, were receiving distance learning across the state, while 245 students remain on a waiting list.

However, more classes are being added as additional teachers are hired. More job interviews are planned.

“We’re doing the best we can to hire teachers as soon we can to open more seats as soon as possible,” said Teri Ushijima, assistant superintendent.

Hayashi said the testing mandate for teachers has been pushed back to Aug. 30 while officials set up testing procedures. Under the state employee requirement announced by Gov. David Ige, teachers must either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

The department is still trying to determine what the employee vaccination rate is, officials said. With only about a third of the 25,000 or so employees indicating so far, the rate sits at about 78%.

Board member Bruce Voss said he continues to support in-person learning and suggested that efforts by the HSTA to undermine the department aren’t helpful.

“The dueling press conferences are not productive and only serve to confuse the public,” Voss said.

Earlier this week the teachers union demanded that the DOE negotiate changes in the COVID-19 protocols and submitted an open letter signed by nearly 2,000 educators describing flaws in the anti-virus policies. And during a news conference, HSTA leaders recounted numerous reports by teachers that suggest the schools aren’t following COVID-19 protocols as strictly as the department says they are.

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, board Chairwoman Catherine Payne said the discussion about the pandemic’s impact on the school system is not over.

“We’re not leaving with all the answers,” she said.

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