With the Waianae Coast surging with COVID-19 infections, some of its public schools are experiencing staff shortages so great that Department of Education staffers from state offices were brought in to help.
Volunteer reinforcements were requested for six area elementary schools this week to help with a range of duties, including substitute teaching, lunch-time cleanup, before- and after-school supervision and health room support.
“Some of our schools in the Nanakuli-Waianae Complex Area are dealing with staffing challenges for a variety of reasons, including staff temporarily isolating or quarantining after potential exposure,” DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said Thursday in a statement.
“The Department is one system,” Kalani added. “We’re doing everything we can to keep schools open to ensure students benefit from in-person instruction.”
At 35% the Waianae Coast has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state. It’s a rate, officials say, that has made the area one of the state’s leaders in infections.
“We’re really facing quite a disaster, a crisis right now on the Leeward Coast,” Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center epidemiologist Jacob Schafer told the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
The center earlier reported a testing positivity rate in the Waianae area as high as 25%, compared with just over 8% for the entire state.
The state Department of Health on Thursday announced it is expanding Waianae Coast testing and vaccination efforts in response to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the community.
Vaccination and testing events, it said, would be held on Saturdays through Oct. 2 and rotate among Nanakuli High & Intermediate School, Nanakuli Villages Mall and Waianae Mall.
The number of COVID-19 infections linked to public schools statewide has grown each week since the start of the school year Aug. 3. The latest weekly count numbered 383 — up from 325 last week — but only 107 of those are known to have had their infections active while on campus, officials said.
Interim state schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi told the state Board of Education last week there has been no virus transmission at any of the schools and no school-related clusters as well. He said the schools would remain safe as long as they adhere to the multilayered health guidelines that emphasize vaccinations, proper masking, frequent hand-washing and keeping students and personnel home when they are feeling sick.
In an email to state offices Wednesday, Hayashi, on behalf of Nanakuli-Waianae Complex Area interim Superintendent Disa Hauge, asked for state office reinforcements for Makaha, Maili, Leihoku, Waianae, Nanakuli and Nanaikapono elementary schools.
It was unclear just how extensive the staffing shortage is in the complex. Hauge couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. But some teachers said they were feeling the crunch.
A Waianae Elementary School teacher who asked to remain anonymous said his school was “severely understaffed,” especially in the kitchen. He said he saw various state office personnel this week helping with recess duty, lunch duty and during student arrivals and departures.
“People need to know about this,” the teacher said. “All it takes is one more thing to happen, and then our system is going to crash.”
A staff member at Maili Elementary said she’s been sacrificing some of her own personal time to help with lunch duty and additional cleaning.
“Teachers have been saying it’s very stressful,” the woman said.
Julie Reyes Oda, president of the Leeward Chapter of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said a recent survey found that 40% of teachers indicated their COVID-19 duties are eating into their breaks and lunch time.
“Some teachers are saying they’re so busy they barely have time to use the bathroom,” said Reyes Oda, a math teacher at Nanakuli High & Intermediate School. “Teachers are getting exhausted being asked to do so many additional duties.”
Reyes Oda said she wouldn’t be surprised if the state’s testing mandate, scheduled to take effect Monday for the DOE, results in the loss of additional personnel who refuse to be tested, and that could worsen the staffing shortage.