An unspecified number of students in Hawaii public schools are attending class less than 3 feet apart from each other and social distancing is no longer a “core essential strategy” of reducing the spread of COVID-19 compared to the value of in-school learning.
The original distancing plan is no longer a key piece of the Department of Education’s plan to keep students from contracting COVID-19, which does include a requirement that students wear masks.
Interim Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi on Wednesday did not provide members of the House Education Committee with estimates of the number of classrooms or students that cannot be accommodated by social distancing of at least 3 feet, which has been among several concerns of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
On Wednesday, Hayashi told members of the House Education Committee that the 3-foot spacing was “not practical” for some island classrooms.
On Friday, the HSTA filed a grievance against the DOE on health and safety issues. In a statement on Wednesday, HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser:
“Unfortunately, the department is taking a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach to so many things about the pandemic. They are not collecting data on lack of distancing or how many staff and students are isolating because of COVID-19. That way they can continue to claim that there isn’t a problem. These are reasons why the HSTA is demanding bargaining on health and safety issues so we can keep schools open but do so safely and pivot to other learning modes if needed.”
Also, an unspecified number of students are being affected by what Hayashi called a “severe shortage of student bus drivers statewide.”
An estimated 100 of 650 bus driver positions are unfilled and the hardest-hit areas include all parts of Maui, Leeward and Windward Oahu and the East and West sides of Hawaii island, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.
Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations, told House members that there had been 650 school bus drivers until some of them left for other jobs during the pandemic.
The requirements to become a public school bus driver are rigorous and there are no more qualified drivers in reserve, Tanaka said.
“It’s a lean work force,” he said. “… There’s no bench.”
The shortage has forced officials to consolidate routes and the DOE is offering mileage reimbursement for families who qualify. Families can apply for mileage reimbursement by visiting the DOE’s website.
Tanaka called the driver shortage part of a nationwide phenomenon that locally represents a “monumental challenge for us.”
The priority remains servicing special education students and those who fall under the McKinney-Vento Act, Kalani said.
The DOE does not employ bus drivers but contracts with Ground Transport Inc. on Oahu and Maui and with Roberts Hawaii on all islands, Kalani said.
Some of the vacancies were created when school bus drivers left for jobs at places such as Walmart, Target and Amazon that offer higher wages, health benefits and even free college tuition, according to the DOE.
”When schools were in distance learning last school year, many drivers retired, got another job, or moved off island and there hasn’t been enough interest in the profession to backfill those lost positions,” according to the DOE. “The Student Transportation Services Branch worked all summer with contractors to consolidate routes in order to minimize the impact on service levels. About two weeks before school started, the contractors started reporting an influx in driver resignations, which required further consolidation and revision of routes to ensure as much coverage as possible. Through the first two weeks of school, contractors continued to report driver resignations or drivers unable to work in order to meet COVID quarantine requirements.”
On Wednesday, the DOE announced that 89% of its salaried employees were fully or partially vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Aug. 31 — representing 19,559 out of 21,980 school employees.
All DOE employees must undergo weekly testing or provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
In a statement, Hayashi said: “Keeping our schools safe and open for in-person learning takes effort from all of us. Increasing vaccination rates within our communities continues to be one of the best ways we can protect ourselves and those around us from COVID-19. I’m proud that our employees are doing their part to contribute to the health and safety of our students and school communities.”