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Maui teachers rally for staffing help, free COVID testing

DOE says free testing programs are coming soon

Maui High School teachers wave signs along Lono Avenue before classes Tuesday morning. “It’s just bringing awareness about the safety of our students and our teachers,” said special education teacher Evelyn Gamez. “We are out here to stand in solidarity with HSTA members.” Public school teachers across the state are rallying over frustrations with a lack of COVID-19 testing options at schools and staffing shortages made worse by the pandemic. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Public schoolteachers rallied Tuesday at Central Maui schools, decrying what they say is a lack of safety for students and a refusal by the state Department of Education to come to the table to find contingency plans for severe staff shortages.

A few dozen members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association picketed outside Maui High, Kahului Elementary and Maui Waena Intermediate schools before the start of classes.

Joined by Central Maui state Rep. Troy Hashimoto and adhering to COVID-19 protocol, educators during the demonstration called attention to the lack of free COVID-19 testing in schools that leaves staff and students without resources.

As a result, large numbers of staff — and students — are quarantining amid illness or exposure, disrupting key times to learn and leaving those who remain at school without enough resources.

“There’s a major substitute teacher shortage right now, as well as a regular teacher shortage,” Maui Waena science teacher John Fitzpatrick said Tuesday. “So a lot of our students end up in the cafeteria because we don’t have enough subs to cover for teachers.”

Educators and Maui state Rep. Troy Hashimoto (second from right) attend a rally in Kahului on Tuesday morning to raise awareness over the lack of COVID-19 testing options at schools and staffing shortages made worse by the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Troy Hashimoto

There were seven Maui Waena teachers out Tuesday, which means that administration, special education, curriculum coordinators or even the registrar will try to cover classes, which takes them away from their jobs and forces unpaid overtime, Fitzpatrick said. Since the start of the year, he’s seen 13 to 16 teachers out on a single day.

Maui High special education teacher Evelyn Gamez picketed Tuesday, calling for a better testing program. She said some aides in her department are choosing to not come to work rather than pay to be tested each week.

“For some, it’s too expensive for them to test if they have to do it out of pocket,” she said, adding that she supports being vaccinated.

Another educator who picketed Tuesday, Lisa Morrison, said that when students are out, it often leaves the teacher in a hard position as well.

“I have a child at Paia Elementary. He was able to go to two weeks of kindergarten and then was considered a close contact and had to quarantine for 10 days,” she said. “Can you imagine being the kindergarten teacher who has to start over with all the classroom procedures, trying to get kindergartners ready again?”

Morrison, a Maui High arts and communication teacher, said her high school is doing its best to keep people safe and the situation is more complex at elementary schools, which don’t yet have approval for youngsters to receive vaccination.

She added that underfunding and overcrowding have long plagued Hawaii’s school system, but with the spotlight of COVID-19, the lack of resources is exacerbated.

“Going back full (time learning) put us right back in that situation,” Morrison said. “Obviously in order to properly distance, you would have to do more of a rotating schedule like we had last year. And I know people felt that was a disruption. But what’s happening now is just as much a disruption to learning.”

The Maui teachers said burnout is high.

“I’m very grateful because we do have the best students — they come to school and the majority of them are really eager to learn,” Fitzpatrick said. “Unfortunately we have to work two or three times harder than normal and there’s quite a bit of burnout.

“It’s only two months into the school year and we’re having to sprint when we’re trying to run a marathon.”

Educators echoed the need for state DOE to come to the table with the Hawaii teachers’ union to find solutions.

The department so far has refused to negotiate with the union on an agreement about safety measures in schools, something that both sides had in place last school year, Hawaii State Teachers Association spokesman Keoki Kerr said in a news release.

“I would love the community to contact the Department of Education, their local legislator and the governor and demand safer schools and that they engage with the labor unions that work in the schools to bring about a solution,” said Morrison, who’s also the secretary-treasurer for HSTA. “I don’t expect the public to come up with a solution necessarily, but if the community demands it, there is a response.”

“It’s the safety our students deserve,” she added. “These are all our children and we need to protect them.”

DOE Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said Tuesday evening that schools are “committed to ensuring learning is occurring to the greatest extent possible and providing school work to students who are in quarantine due to COVID.”

He added that students learning from home during quarantine use various tools, including work packets designed to be completed through the duration of quarantine, assignment to a Google Classroom and other virtual forms of learning.

Also, the department is partnering with the state Department of Health to coordinate school-based COVID-19 testing for eligible students and staff at no cost through federally funded programs.

“By the end of this week all public schools will be registered for training to be eligible to participate in the Operation Expanded Testing program,” Hayashi said via email. “We are grateful for the many new free and accessible testing opportunities that have been made available across the state while schools work to ramp up testing programs.”

The DOE head said time and energy needs to be focused on working together as a community on coexisting with COVID-19 for the long term.

“This means building upon lessons learned, adapting to updated science and guidance, and collaborating on realistic solutions that are centered around keeping students in the classroom safely,” he said.

Starting last week in Kapolei when about 200 Leeward Oahu teachers held an outdoor picketing event, teachers around the state are holding demonstrations over the next weeks to bring awareness to the challenges faced at schools. A demonstration at DOE headquarters in Honolulu was held Tuesday afternoon, Hawaii State Teachers Association said.

The HSTA is the exclusive representative of 13,500 public school teachers statewide.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com. Staff writer and photographer Matthew Thayer contributed to this report.

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