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Board OKs plan to delay Hawaii school year start

Desks are spaced out in a classroom at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua, Oahu, on Tuesday. While Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of coronavirus cases per capita in the country and many of its schools have open-air campuses, the challenges of returning kids full time to classrooms may still be insurmountable. AP Photo

HONOLULU — The state Board of Education approved Thursday an agreement to delay the start of public schools.

Students across Hawaii were originally scheduled to return to school on Tuesday. But the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the teachers union, led an effort to delay, saying the state Department of Education didn’t sufficiently plan for safely reopening schools during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and prepare teachers for distance learning.

The department and unions later agreed to a new date of Aug. 17. The board voted after hours of testimony and discussion.

Teachers returned to work Wednesday as originally planned. Out of about 13,000 teachers, 160 didn’t come to work, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said.

Parent Burke Burnett’s testimony cited the 124 newly confirmed cases the state reported Thursday.

“It is obvious . . . that now is not that time to open in-person classroom instruction,” said Burnett, a parent of an 8th-grader at Kaimuki Middle School in Honolulu. “The current reopening plan is reckless. It will make people sick. Some of them will die.”

Genna Javier, parent of a 6th-grader at Sunset Beach Elementary on Oahu’s North Shore, opposed the delay. Students who don’t want to return to school have the option for distance learning, she said in previously submitted written testimony.

Teachers keep raising new complaints while pushing for a delay, she said.

“I fear if we keep going down this road, there will be no school ever because nothing is ever going to be just right,” she said.

School board member Bruce Voss was the only member to vote against the delay.

“This proposed schedule change is just a very bad deal for students,” he said.

He said he thinks students should begin distance learning next week as originally planned and allow individual schools in the statewide district to decide when to transition to in-person learning.

Most schools across Hawaii will be using a blended approach where students alternate between in-person and online instruction. A handful of schools with enough space to keep desks 6 feet apart will open to full face-to-face instruction.

“We are sending them back too early,” said Kileigh Sanchez, a teacher at Leeward Oahu’s Waianae Intermediate School, who supports distance learning for the first quarter. Classrooms at her school, she said, are the “dirtiest, most poorly ventilated, confined spaces” and teachers are being asked to take “invisible bullets.”

Board member Dwight Takeno said he’s concerned about a lack of transparency from the Education Department. He said he learned about eight COVID-19 cases at summer school programs from a Hawaii News Now report.

The board postponed a vote on whether to approve reducing the 180-day school year. The plan would take away nine instructional days to be used for staff training and professional development.

School officials are trying to negotiate finding an additional three instructional days, Kishimoto said.

“This issue has divided our community amid these uncertain times,” said Kishimoto in a statement released Thursday night. “There are no perfect answers. We acknowledge this move effectively delays student instruction, and we are fully committed to preparing our schools to safely welcome students back on Aug. 17.”

The additional training days will include DOE-mandated training on health and safety and instructional and student support.

Parents are encouraged to contact their child’s school to select a learning option for the upcoming school year, the DOE said. This will help schools in planning for distance learning and mixing in face-to-face instruction. Student counts will guide staffing decisions, classroom arrangements and other procedures to ensure the safety.

State Rep. Justin Woodson, chairman of the House Lower and Higher Education Committee from Maui, said he supported the board’s move.

“I’ve been speaking with teachers and principals over the past couple weeks about the reopening of schools,” Woodson said Thursday night. “Because cases are increasing, it would be prudent to postpone the reopening.” 

* The Maui News contributed to this report.

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