Forty-two Hawaii public schools as of Tuesday had not posted their COVID-19 case counts to the state Department of Education’s public dashboard since before winter break, even though they are required by state law to do so weekly.
That means many families, educators and community leaders have not had the reliable, publicly accessible case counts for their neighborhood schools that the law was designed to provide.
Some schools had made no coronavirus case reports since as far back as August or September, through the surges of the COVID-19 delta and omicron variants.
Schools with missing case counts included some of Hawaii’s largest schools, such as Mililani High School, and schools in areas with historically high coronavirus case counts, such as Waianae High School.
While the dashboard currently claims a daily average of 410 cases across the 257 public schools since the Jan. 2 start of the new term, the missing data “really skews the average,” said Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
He said some teachers from schools with missing case counts have told him they have seen internal documents for their schools showing dozens of cases on their campuses, so they don’t understand why they’re not being reported on the DOE’s dashboard.
Tui, a math teacher, compiled the spreadsheet and posted it on social media Tuesday night. Some schools after that time appear to have updated their data.
The dashboard reports counts ranging from 463 to 560 for the first week of the new semester, 786 cases on Monday, and 457 cases on Tuesday.
In a response to an inquiry by the Star-Advertiser, state Department of Education Acting Communications Director Nanea Kalani said: “Some schools are dealing with case reporting backlogs due to the increased number of cases reported after the winter break and may be further impacted by staffing shortages for the same reason. These schools are prioritizing the identification and notification of close contacts — which is a responsibility delegated to school administrators — and will file reported cases as soon as possible. HIDOE leadership is discussing possible solutions to help streamline and alleviate some of that burden.”
Asked to respond to reports from some campuses of confusion over the handling of infections contracted off campus, Kalani quoted the DOE’s current health and safety guidance: “If the case was on campus during the infectious period, notification to the school community must go out. If the case was on campus within the last two weeks but not during the infectious period, notification is strongly recommended. If the case was off campus for more than two weeks, notification is optional.” All such cases must still be included in the dashboard counts, she said.
The law doesn’t make distinctions or exceptions. It reads: “The department of education shall publish a weekly report on schools that have a student, staff member, or affiliated individual who has tested positive for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The report shall include: (1) The school’s name; (2) The date the COVID-19 positive test result was reported to the school; and (3) The date that the positively tested individual was last on the school campus.”
Union complaints filed
Meanwhile, the Hawaii teachers union announced today that it has filed a new demand for impact bargaining, as well as a grievance, over changes to working conditions as the schools struggle to cope with widespread teacher absences.
The demand for impact bargaining, submitted to Interim Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi and state Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne, alleges recent changes to members’ working conditions without negotiation or a consult-and-confer process, which the union says are violations of contract, department policy and state law.
In a letter to union members, the HSTA also said it has initiated a grievance regarding the interim superintendent’s direction to administrators to “inappropriately subvert the HIDOE school code to force non-classroom teachers with their own responsibilities to substitute (teach) in violation of our collective bargaining agreement.”
Last Wednesday 1,800 teachers were absent, with half calling out sick, and half absent for other reasons such as family leave and vacation. The department was short of substitute teachers by the hundreds, leading school officials on many campuses to use counselors, security guards, state and district personnel, and other adults to supervise students lacking their regular teachers. Some schools, including Sunset Beach Elementary and Waianae Intermediate schools, abruptly shifted temporarily to virtual learning.