COVID testing becomes problem for unvaccinated teachers; some schools shift back to online classes

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — As COVID cases skyrocketed past the 4,000 mark on Thursday, Jan. 6, some schools have already shifted to distance learning as a precaution. Absent teachers also remain well over 1,000, and one substitute said some of those absences are likely unvaccinated teachers unable to get tested in time.

As COVID case counts continue to rise in the community, every aspect of life gets impacted — including schools. The Hawaii Department of Education (HDOE) reported 1600 teachers were absent on Wednesday, Jan. 5, as half of them were out sick.

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Jenny Orebaugh, a substitute teacher, said she thinks at least part of the other half of teachers who were out are unvaccinated — like herself — and are unable to get tested in time. She said unvaccinated teachers cannot test at school campuses anymore to comply with the testing mandate.

“Since we’ve returned from the break, those tests are no longer available,” Orebaugh explained. “And we’re being told not to show up at the testing site — they will not provide letters for work. There’s just not enough tests to go around to test healthy people just to show up at work.”

Free testing events held during the first week of January at multiple HDOE locations on Oahu’s west side were not producing a letter with negative COVID results — something unvaccinated workers need.

According to the DOE, the “policy has always stated testing for the purposes of the testing mandate would be at the employee’s expense,” and that “employees may use any free testing site.”

As of December 2021, 91% of HDOE salaried employees were vaccinated against COVID-19, which means 1,969 out of a total of 21,914 employees were unvaccinated.

With the omicron variant, breakthrough cases have become more common, and coronavirus cases are through the roof — this has forced some schools to make tough choices.

”(COVID’s) everywhere,” said Alex Teece, founder of DreamHouse ‘Ewa Beach Public Charter School. “So that was really the tipping point, seeing these numbers skyrocket and realizing that we had a choice to make, and a difficult decision to make to not be a part of those numbers.”

Teece said they chose to shift the school to distance learning for two weeks.

“Next Friday was when we were gonna hit the end button. But we’ll have to see,” Teece added.

He is thankful his small campus, with under 300 students and just 25 faculty, was able to make the change rather easily.

“We’re nimble enough to be able to make a decision that’s so close to home versus making a decision for dozens, dozens or hundreds of schools,” Teece continued. “So I feel for the DOE. I understand that it’s not a one size fits all situation or solution.”

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Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said they are focusing on in-person classes using current safety precautions but limited online classes are available.

“So, there may be spaces available. Parents would need to work with and contact your school principal,” Hayashi explained.

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