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Teachers concerned about bringing back more students

Some schools may shift to ‘hybrid’ model for 2nd semester

Some Maui public school educators fear having to teach in “hybrid” mode as their schools seek to bring in rotating groups of students to campus when the second semester begins Jan. 5.

“I feel that decisions are being rushed and are not taking into adequate account the safety of students and their families or the safety of school staff and their families,” said Baldwin High School teacher David Negaard, who is anticipating more students returning to campus after winter break.

Negaard said he’s been seeing indications in training materials that the superintendent and complex area superintendent are directing schools to return to face-to-face instruction.

“I desperately want to see my students face to face, but not if the risk to them or their families or to us and our families is too great,” he said. “What do we say to an asymptomatic student who carries COVID-19 from school to home and infects a vulnerable family member? The stakes are that high; how many seriously ill tutus are too many?”

Nanna Lindberg, who teaches biology at Maui High, said she is “anxious and fearful” about moving from full distance to a hybrid model.

“Most of all, I can’t get the image out of my head of my 1-and-a-half year old becoming sick through me and being hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital fighting for his life. . . . The chances of that happening might be low, but the stakes are astronomically high,” Lindberg said.

She said she is fearful the hybrid model will create unsafe conditions for students, teachers and other staff, not only due to physical health reasons but also mental health and fatigue from being “under constant pressure” by the state Department of Education and the community to open schools.

DOE officials said Thursday that there is no blanket date for implementing hybrid learning, nor is there a single model that all schools in the Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui Complex and other areas have to follow.

“Principals continue to work with their complex area superintendents to develop and implement reopening plans that prioritize the health and safety of each school community,” DOE said in an email.

Some schools have returned to blended learning models, focusing first on students who need extra support, followed by younger grade levels, with the goal of expanding gradually to upper grades, according to DOE. The blended learning approach may use staggered schedules to keep a smaller portion of the student body on campus at any given time. The expectation is that schools develop their student return plans during the second quarter and implement them when ready.

Maui High School Principal Jamie Yap confirmed Thursday that the school is heading toward a hybrid schedule next semester, but is still working out who will come back and when. Students will be grouped by their last names in the hopes that kids from the same family will attend on the same days. However, he added that students will not necessarily be attending school with their friends.

Most of the school’s more than 2,000 students are currently on distance learning.

Yap said parents have until Dec. 11 to turn in “opt-in” forms to continue distance learning in the third and fourth quarters.

The school will notify the community of its plans around Dec. 16 to 18.

He said the school’s bell schedule and seven-period rotational schedule will not change, even with more students coming back to campus. Maui High will do its “best job to deliver education” going forward “with safety as a priority,” the principal emphasized.

“We want to make sure even if we go into hybrid, we can keep everybody safe,” Yap said.

He reminded parents and students that they should conduct a wellness check prior to coming to school and that students who are sick should say home until the illness is cleared.

The school also has four learning hubs on campus to offer additional assistance to special education students, English language learners or those who cannot participate in distance learning for courses such as auto shop and carpentry, where students stay in one physical class for the whole day and do not move to other classes.

Even with limited students on campus, there are still risks. On Monday, Maui High notified parents that an employee tested positive for COVID-19 and had last been on campus on Nov. 25. The DOE said Thursday that individuals determined to be potential close contacts by the school have been asked to remain at home and quarantine for 14 days.

Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary in Lahaina, said he had close contact with someone with COVID-19 and that his son had also been exposed to a child whose family members had COVID-19.

“I don’t feel safe returning to work face-to-face and don’t feel safe sending my child to day care until we receive a vaccine,” said Hughey, who is married to Lindberg.

As the Hawaii State Teachers Association head faculty representative at his school, Hughey said he is happy the union was able to get a memorandum of understanding on metrics to reopen.

“But speaking as an individual, I do not feel safe going back to our overcrowded schools during a pandemic without a vaccine,” he said. “I also would rather not see our schools spread the virus, overcrowding our hospital that has limited capacity.”

Hughey added that his school’s administration has done a good job listening to community and teacher needs, but he added that the administration needs to know how many teachers are actually willing to teach face to face.

“We have a pilot program, and teachers have told me it is hard to move around 6 feet apart with only one teacher per grade level doing face-to-face instruction,” Hughey said, adding that no decision has been made yet on his school’s plans for next semester.

Lokelani Intermediate in Kihei, one of the first schools to implement a hybrid model, moved back to distance learning after reporting a case last month. However, the school was able to reinstitute its hybrid schedule on Monday.

Lanai High & Elementary, which also shifted to distance learning after an outbreak on the island in October, returned to in-person learning on Tuesday for students in need of extra support. Other students will continue with distance learning through the end of the second quarter.

The school is working to bring elementary students back for blended learning in the third quarter, with middle and high school levels continuing distance learning until a later date, DOE said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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