Teachers union, DOE agree to keep students farther apart this fall

The Hawaii State Teachers Association and the state Department of Education reached an agreement on physical distancing in classrooms as schools prepare to start the new academic year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the resolution between the teachers union and DOE, all meeting spaces — including classrooms — where students, staff and others gather will be configured to allow at least 6 feet of separation.

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Schools that plan to configure classrooms and meeting spaces with less than 6 feet of physical distance must seek an exception.

The agreement is in line with a memorandum of understanding for reopening schools that was recently signed by the HSTA and the state.

In its guidance for reopening schools, the state Department of Health recommended a distance of at least 3 feet between seats and at least 6 feet of distance if students are facing each other.

The HSTA, however, said allowing students to be 3 feet apart puts students and staff in danger, and thousands of pages of testimony were submitted before a meeting of the state Board of Education last week, in which numerous parents and teachers expressed concern, anger and frustration about the 3-foot social distance guideline and urged the BOE to consider a 6-foot distancing requirement.

Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area Superintendent Chad Keone Farias said the new guidelines have made many principals in his complex area take a second look at their reopening plans.

Many school plans were based on students being distanced 6 feet apart side-to-side, but possibly 3 feet apart front to back.

Farias said the first agreement between the union and the DOE “wasn’t very clear,” but 3,000 testimonies submitted to the BOE shows that teachers were fearful.

“I’m glad we have an agreement,” he said. “(I would) much rather have our teachers feeling comfortable working with our keiki.”

The new agreement also calls for teachers to determine the routines and rules about wearing face masks in their particular classrooms.

Farias said schools also are re-examining how to handle recess and that there’s still conflicting guidance about wearing masks outdoors.

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“In the end, safety of our kids, safety of our teachers (and the) comfort level of parents and employees is a big factor in our decisions.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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