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Hawaii public school teacher absences hit 2,159 amid omicron surge

The number of Hawaii public school teachers calling not showing up for work spiked to 2,159 today amid a surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant, the Hawaii State Department of Education said today. The state was also short 472 substitute teachers, who are supposed to help cover for missing teachers.

Teacher absences on other school days this week ranged from 1,685 to 1,790, with similar shortfalls among substitute teachers, llustrating the struggle the rise of omicron continues to impose on schools, teachers and families.

Almost 17 percent of the department’s 12,800 teachers were out today, up from about 14 percent a week earlier. In the past, state schools interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said about half of the absent teachers called out sick, while the other half were out for other reasons, such as family leave and vacation.

Of today’s 2,159 absences, 525 were positions that did not require a substitute teacher. That left 1,634 positions that needed substitutes, but only 1,162 substitute teachers signed up to work.

The shortage of substitute teachers means many students are being sent to cafeterias, auditoriums or other classrooms, while any available teachers, counselors, security guards, district and state staff have been also compelled to help supervise students — sometimes, some union employees say, against their will.

Sunset Beach Elementary and Waianae Intermediate schools are among the campuses that abruptly went temporarily to distance learning this week.

Hayashi has continued to emphasize the department’s commitment to keep schools open for in-person learning as much as possible.

In an e-mail, Nanea Kalani, acting DOE communications director, said the department is “deeply grateful to our teachers who are going above and beyond during this challenging time to help where help is needed, our school administrators who are juggling multiple responsibilities, and all of our school-level, complex area and state office staff and leaders who are working tirelessly on behalf of our students.”

Today, absences were 19% higher than the the 1,812 reported Jan. 7, the last time the education department released teacher absence numbers. The DOE said it would release similar numbers next Friday as well.

Star-Advertiser requests for absence numbers for other school staff as well as for students did not receive responses.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association this week filed a new demand for impact bargaining, and a grievance, over the way the education department is handling staffing amid pandemic challenges. A complaint to the Hawaii Labor Relations Board is pending.

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