The state Department of Education said Thursday that public schools will be limited to distance learning through the first quarter of the school year, but the union representing the state’s teachers claims that is still not enough to keep educators and students safe.
After the DOE’s announcement Thursday — which delayed the return of students to classrooms throughout the state from mid-September to Oct. 2 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — the Hawaii State Teachers Association made its own announcement, declaring the move insufficient.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee thanked the DOE for making the change, which the union requested for several weeks. However, he added, teachers and students will still be put at risk by congregating on campuses for a variety of reasons.
“Only about 36% of our campuses are 100% distance learning for all students,” Rosenlee said, citing an HSTA teacher poll.
He said the majority of campuses are allowing students with extenuating circumstances — special education students, English language learners, homeless students and students who lack reliable internet connectivity — on campus, while teachers already returned to classrooms.
Rosenlee said the union is tracking “close to 30 campuses” throughout the state where there has been at least one COVID-19 case, and specifically named Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo, a Hilo public charter school that reported eight cases among employees last week, as a particularly egregious case.
“That is why HSTA has been advocating that it should be 100% distance learning for all students across the state, and that all teachers should have the option of teleworking,” Rosenlee said.
However, Chad Farias, Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex area superintendent, said that request would be almost impossible to fulfill.
“There is no way we can have all students off-campus,” Farias said. “You could buy a family in Ka‘u 20 Wi-Fi devices and all 20 of them won’t work out there. There’s just no way.”
Furthermore, Farias said, there are other students who need in-person instruction in order to succeed at school, particularly in his rural complex area.
Many students struggling with English as a second language need more interaction than can be given through a computer screen, Farias said.
While Farias said he is comfortable with allowing teachers to telework when circumstances allow it — even if it costs some students a few days of instruction — there are some teachers for whom that simply would be unworkable.
“I’ve had one chemistry teacher who’s requested telework, and she’s asking to bring lab equipment back to her home to set up a lab from there,” Farias said. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle that one.”
Regardless of what happens this quarter, Rosenlee said the DOE also must consider how reopening next quarter will work.
“Right now, there is no evidence across the entire country that a major school system was able to open successfully,” Rosenlee said. “When school systems of similar size to Hawaii have tried to open, they’ve only met disastrous results.”
The DOE responded to Rosenlee’s comments late Thursday, issuing a statement explaining that the department will continue to make decisions focusing on health and safety.
“Complex area superintendents will work with school principals to develop transition plans for the second quarter, with considerations for community-specific needs,” the statement read. “Meanwhile, the department will continue to work closely with state, county and health officials to assess if and when students can safely return to in-person blended learning models.”
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