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Union, DOE clash over return to in-person classes

Education officials say they’ll bring back students after winter break

The union representing local public school teachers is criticizing the state over its plans to bring back students to in-person learning after winter break with COVID-19 cases surging in all four counties.

The state Department of Education announced Wednesday that after consulting with the state Department of Health, the DOE “remains committed to full in-person learning during the second semester.” Teachers were scheduled to return from winter break on Monday, with students coming back on Tuesday.

“We’ve seen the benefits of in-person learning for our students’ social development and academic achievement and while we remain vigilant due to the omicron variant, we have consistent safety measures in place that have proven effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a news release Wednesday. “Core safety protocols such as getting vaccinated and boosted, masking, social distancing and hand-washing have helped keep our positivity rates lower than the broader community, as well as our counterparts on the mainland.”

DOE leadership and school leaders have been revisiting contingency plans and preparing for potential changes to in-person instruction, the department said. Schools will notify their staff and families directly if any transitions need to occur.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Osa Tui Jr. said in a statement on Wednesday that the Education and Health departments “had time to make better plans for situations such as this and failed to act in a responsible way.”

“While school districts across the country are taking proactive steps to mitigate the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Hawaii State Department of Education continues to make no adjustments while cases dramatically increase during the holiday season,” Tui said. “We are seeing more and more that even being fully vaccinated and boosted is not enough to be fully protected anymore.”

Tui said HSTA has been asking the DOE for months what its contingency plans are and that the department has refused to share them. He called for the department to direct all campuses to share those plans with staff and families so they can potentially plan for child care and changes to their work or schedule.

Cases in Hawaii have soared over the past month, a surge the Health Department blames on the omicron variant as well as holiday gatherings and travel. As of Wednesday, the state was averaging 1,485 new cases a day and a test positivity rate of 13 percent, up from the 228.1 cases it was seeing as of Dec. 14. Maui County was averaging 103 cases a day and a test positivity rate of 9.6 percent.

On Tuesday, the University of Hawaii announced it would move classes online for the first two weeks of the spring semester that begins Jan. 10, in light of the increase in cases.

DOE, however, pointed out that since Dec. 1, its schools collectively have seen a daily average of 19 positive cases across 42,000 staff and 160,000 students, according to the DOE case count dashboard.

“In addition to our core mitigation strategies, we are fortunate to now have a combination of tools and resources to help combat this virus, including vaccinations for students 5 years or older, booster shots and opportunities for testing within the community or at school,” Hayashi said. “That means everyone on our campuses — with the exception of pre-kindergarten students — is eligible to be vaccinated.”

Public schools have seen a spike in average daily cases in December as compared to November, when the most cases reported in one day was 26, according to the dashboard. In the week before Christmas break, DOE reported 66 new cases on Dec. 13, 36 on Dec. 14, 45 on Dec. 15, 40 on Dec. 16 and 30 on Dec. 17.

“It’s disingenuous of HIDOE to cherry pick statistics that are washed out by the two weeks of winter break when school was not in session while case counts across the state have rocketed to their highest ever,” Tui said. “It’s not unreasonable to expect that when students return to campus on Jan. 4, the spread of omicron in our communities could be hitting a high with traditional New Year celebrations and gatherings taking place just a few days prior.”

DOE employees have been required to either be vaccinated or subject to regular testing. Unfortunately, Tui said, access to testing is limited on DOE campuses, pointing to a report by Hayashi to the Board of Education on Dec. 16 that showed varied percentages of schools offering testing by district. In the Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui Complex Area, 65 percent, or 13 of 20 schools, are providing regular, on-campus testing. In the Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai Complex Area, all 11 schools offer testing.

The DOE encouraged families and staff to view the department’s COVID-19 health and safety guidance at bit.ly/HIDOEsafetyguidance. The four core essential strategies of the guidance include promoting vaccinations, conducting daily wellness checks (see bit.ly/HIDOE-WellnessCheck for more information) and encouraging anyone feeling sick to stay home, wearing masks at all times indoors and practicing proper hand hygiene.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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