The Hawaii State Teachers Association said it will take legal action over school reopening plans it thinks are unsafe and “reckless” amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a surge of cases.
During a news conference Thursday afternoon, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the union will file a prohibitive action complaint against the state with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and a grievance on behalf of Bargaining Unit 5 employees because of violations of the HSTA contract and a memorandum of understanding reached with the state in June.
According to Rosenlee, the HSTA requested impact bargaining with the state Department of Education over changing community conditions and newly modified instructional plans, but the state refused.
Big Island public schools, along with most other schools on the neighbor islands, will transition entirely to distance learning for the first four weeks of instruction, the DOE announced Tuesday, a move that came a week before students were expected to start the school year.
All neighbor island schools, with the exception of Molokai schools and Hana High and Elementary on Maui, will follow a three-phase plan for distance learning, which includes in-person training, full distance learning and a possible transition to blended learning, the DOE said Tuesday.
According to the DOE, students will be scheduled to return to campuses from Aug. 17-20 to connect with their teachers, among other things.
While some schools will use a “grab-and-go” process to pick up distance learning materials, Rosenlee said hundreds of thousands of students will still physically return to campuses next week for in-person instruction.
“To have teachers be required to meet with students face-to-face in the middle of a raging pandemic is reckless and will risk the lives of everyone,” he said.
State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, however, hit back at the HSTA’s claims in a lengthy written statement issued Thursday afternoon.
“Despite the department’s efforts to work collaboratively and productively with the teachers union, its president Corey Rosenlee continues to work against what is in the best interest of Hawaii’s children under the false pretense of ‘Schools Our Keiki Deserve,’” Kishimoto said.
“What our keiki deserve is time to train and connect with their teachers to prepare before we shift to full distance learning for the next few weeks.
“The union’s misleading claim that ‘tens of thousands’ of students will be receiving face-to-face learning on campuses next week is a scare tactic that follows multiple publicity stunts to create further anxiety at a time when we need sound leadership.”
According to Kishimoto, school leaders designed plans for students to return to campuses next week in a coordinated manner so they can meet their teachers, receive any necessary training on distance learning platforms and address connectivity and access issues.
In many cases, schools designated an hour per day for certain grade levels to accomplish this while enforcing social distancing and face-covering measures, she said.
“Mr. Rosenlee encouraged teachers to show up for paid training days over the past two weeks, and now he is telling teachers not to show up for students,” Kishimoto said. “The union demanded this additional training for teachers, at a cost of nine fewer instructional days for students, but is trying to prevent students from having the same opportunity.
“Teachers have been back on campus full time since July 29, and we have no evidence of widespread transmission on any of our campuses,” she continued. “We have had individual cases at individual campuses, as we reported earlier this week, and will continue to report on weekly moving forward.”
Single COVID-19 cases were reported at six different campuses during the summer, when more than 8,000 students engaged in some type of face-to-face or blended learning summer programs, Kishimoto said.
“We will not allow Mr. Rosenlee to script out the work our principals need to do to lead, nor drive a wedge between our principals and their staff,” the superintendent concluded. “Our students have physically been out of school since spring break. It’s time we all put the futures of our students first. That’s what our keiki truly deserve.”
Rosenlee said the HSTA is requesting the Labor Relations Board issue a declaratory ruling stating the DOE’s plans violate workforce safety rules by forcing teachers into a hazardous workplace and an injunction to prevent the state from violating these rules.
With an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases, Rosenlee said distance learning should be implemented until the end of the first quarter or until schools are safe.
Rosenlee said the union will ask the state Board of Education to take action during its Aug. 20 meeting to ensure 100% distance learning for all students on all islands until at least the end of the first quarter. He also said the union will ask Gov. David Ige to take emergency action before Monday to stop any in-person instruction and meetings in schools.
During a separate news conference Thursday afternoon, however, Ige said the state has a “very thoughtful phase-in plan” for the first four days of classes that aim to limit the numbers of students, faculty and staff on campus at any given time.
With a record-breaking 355 new cases reported Thursday, Dr. Scott Miscovich of Premier Medical Group asked rhetorically during the HSTA news conference whether children, teachers and staff should be sent back to school “when we have a perfectly adequate option to help these students continue to learn.”
Miscovich, whose team has led COVID-19 testing efforts throughout the state, dispelled some myths surrounding the virus in children and said children are one of the fastest growing demographics of virus spread in the state and America.
Children also can pose a risk to everyone at home, he said.
“The classroom is a perfect place for this disease to spread, and the disease is so contagious now, you don’t need 15 minutes face-to-face before you hit a serious contact,” Miscovich said.
Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.