Teachers union pushes back against state’s plan for reopening schools

The Hawaii State Teachers Association on Tuesday urged state leaders to delay students’ Aug. 4 return to school.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee, a social studies teacher at Campbell High School on Oahu, said during a news conference Tuesday that many questions surrounding the planned reopening remain unanswered.

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A month ago, Rosenlee said the teachers union and the state Department of Education signed a memorandum of understanding, which included “policies, practices and promises made by the DOE that would occur before our schools began.”

However, Rosenlee said that since the MOU was signed, HSTA has asked the DOE multiple times for answers to questions, which it has not received.

“Hearing these unanswered questions, and that teachers are supposed to report soon, HSTA has no confidence that our school buildings are ready to open for our students,” Rosenlee said.

The HSTA is asking the state Board of Education and the state to delay the opening of schools because they need more time to create a healthy environment for students and teachers, he said.

“Opening our schools quickly is not something we should do in a pandemic,” Rosenlee said. “What is the rush?”

Among others, questions still remain about written guidance from the state Department of Health for reopening; options available for families seeking 100% distance learning for their children; clear protocols regarding masks, which the HSTA thinks must be mandatory; how schools will move to a 100% distance learning environment if they are shut down; and when teachers will be trained.

According to Rosenlee, one of the biggest concerns is what will happen when a student, teacher, school employee or household member tests positive for COVID-19.

“Before we begin bringing students on campus, this is a question that must be answered and be clear for everyone to understand about what are the procedures in case someone contracts this virus,” he said.

Rosenlee also said DOH discussions regarding “ohana bubbles,” which aims to limit students to smaller groups consisting of the same individuals, are “divorced from reality.”

“At the secondary level, we have hundreds of kids that are going to be changing classes, and teachers will be exposed to hundreds of students,” he said. “I will tell you as a teacher — before school, at lunch, after school — these kids will be taking off their masks, they’ll be in close proximity with each other (and) then we’re going to put them in a confined area with teachers for long periods of (the) day.”

And for young students, their “ohana bubbles” extend beyond just those they share a classroom with, Rosenlee said.

Brandon Cha, a Pearl City High School science teacher who spoke during the conference, contended that training on COVID-19 protocols was not widespread among teachers.

While teachers do get four days of student-free prep time at the start of a typical year that could be used for training, Cha said that’s not enough time under current circumstances.

“This is a year of a pandemic, and what we’re dealing with and what teachers are being asked to modify — not just for our ease of teaching, but for the safety of our students — is way more than what we can accomplish, I believe, safely in four days.”

To adequately plan, teachers need thorough prep time before students return, Cha said.

“We, as teachers, are being asked to make a choice between our safety and our duty to our students, and frankly that’s a false choice that we have to make,” he said. “Fear and uncertainty are forcing the self-interest of teachers and parents to come into conflict, which is really ironic because at the heart of it, teachers always, and parents, we both want what’s safe and fair for our students and for ourselves.

“We want schools to open, but we want to do it safely. We want a specific plan, given to principals and teachers and then passed on to our students’ parents … Until we get that, we are asking to delay students returning to physical school buildings.”

During a news conference Monday, state leaders, including Gov. David Ige, state epidemiologist Sarah Park, BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne and state Superintendent Christina Kishimoto stressed the importance of reopening schools next month.

“There’s still many unanswered questions, but we know that in response to the question of whether we need to reopen the schools or not, the answer is ‘yes’ because we cannot continue to shelter in place forever, we cannot keep our kids sheltered forever,” Park said Monday. “We do need to be able to make sure that we reopen the schools safely, and we’re all working hard to ensure that we do, so that they can get their education, they can develop socially, emotionally, as well as intellectually.”

In a phone conversation with the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday, Ige said the state has made the necessary preparations to reopen schools, and that the DOE’s reopening plans allow for two weeks of “extended training time” that will give schools time to adapt to the new system.

Additionally, delaying the reopening of schools likely would have an impact on when the mandatory 14-day quarantine for trans-Pacific visitors could be lifted, and vice versa, he said.

“We have a good plan for reopening schools, and I think it addresses our biggest concerns,” Ige said.

A DOE spokeswoman said late Tuesday that the safety of students and staff is the department’s highest priority, and it stands by a comment Payne made Monday that the importance of students’ mental health cannot be lost in the conversation.

“The department’s distance learning survey findings made clear that parents have had great concern about their children’s social emotional well-being during these extended school closures,” Payne said. “School closures have caused major disruptions to learning and development, exacerbating pre-existing issues of access and equity. Last school year, our students lost 46 in-person instructional days, and each additional day will only increase the learning gaps for our students.”

The DOE earlier this month announced its school reopening plan. Schools were closed in March of the prior school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the reopening plan, there are elementary, middle/intermediate and high school learning models for reopening.

Those models include face-to-face learning, with all students on campus daily, and a variety of blended learning models that include a combination of in-person learning and structured online distance learning.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky contributed to this story.

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

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