HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) said schools are not the safe spaces those in power purport them to be. The union is urging the Department of Education (DOE) to take action before it’s too late.

Teachers and parents grow more frustrated with each passing day. Positive cases in schools are increasing, yet they claim there is little being done to enforce safety protocols. The teachers union is pleading with the DOE and State officials to take action.

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HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. said the DOE’s lack of action is a slap in the face to teachers and they want to hold officials accountable.

“When interim superintendent Hayashi started two and a half weeks ago, he promised that strict protocols would be enforced,” Tui explained.

He said that is not happening, however.

“In an elementary school, when the student comes into class, they call that a bubble,” Tui said. “But the students exit and enter the bubble all the time during the school day. So cohorting really is more, to me, a fantasy than a reality.”

A parent who asked not to be identified said social distancing is impossible at her child’s high school. The parent said students are jam-packed in hallways between classes and in the cafeteria.

“They’re pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder,” the parent said. “And in class, if we’re lucky, they have a few feet of spacing apart. But aside from that it’s still pretty tight.”

Regine Delacruz’s son is a 5th grader at Kapalama Elementary. She said she is very concerned for the safety of her son and her family.

“I feel like they went ahead and jump to in-person learning so quickly, despite with all the high cases that we’ve been having lately,” Delacruz said.

The DOE reported hundreds of positive cases on campuses since school started less than three weeks ago. Students, and in some schools, classes are being quarantined. But HSTA Secretary Lisa Morrison, who also teaches at Maui High School, said a lack of clear guidance from the DOE is putting many at risk.

“(The DOE) indicated publicly that there’s no threshold for them at which they would actually take a different action and we’re concerned that (cases) could just keep going up and up without any change,” Morrison said.

“We don’t want to wait for one child to be severely sick and end up in the hospital cause then it’s too late for them to take action from there,” Delacruz said.

Tui said the union wants DOE to develop an agreement with a clear plan that gives specific triggers for distance and hybrid learning — similar to what they had in place in 2020.

“Last year, we had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that allowed schools to switch to alternative modes of instruction, including distance and hybrid learning. The state refuses to bargain a new MOU for this school year, insisting instead that all schools would return to in-person learning with very limited alternatives,” Tui said. “This poor planning means that there are no set provisions for distance instruction, and no guarantees of key health and safety protocols.”

In a statement, superintendent Keith Hayashi said:

“In-person learning is the best education model for successful student outcomes, and we are confident that our schools provide a safe environment for students and staff.

“It is our duty and responsibility to keep our schools open for students who need us not only for in-person learning, but for socialization, services tied to mental health, and even meals. But we cannot do this alone.

Our schools are doing everything within their control to diligently implement the core essential strategies set by the state Department of Health, and evidence so far shows that these efforts are working. While community transmission levels have increased, we have no known cases of students getting sick with COVID-19 as a result of coming to school and there is no evidence indicating our schools are amplifiers of transmission.

Using multiple mitigation measures consistently and in combination gives schools the flexibility to achieve safe learning environments even when not every mitigation measure can be applied. The core essential strategies schools are implementing consistently are: promoting vaccinations for staff and eligible students, staying home when ill, consistent and correct masking, and proper hand hygiene. Cohorting, physical distancing, improving ventilation, and cleaning and disinfection, meanwhile, are additional mitigation strategies to be applied in combination to the greatest extent possible.

This guidance has been set by the state Department of Health, based on the best available evidence and in collaboration with such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics-Hawaii Chapter, Hawaii Keiki Nurses, the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools and others. It is also aligned with the CDC’s Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.”

Tui said he does not want to shut all schools down, he just wants protocols in place so that everyone is on the same page. There needs to be accountability.

“Enough is enough,” Tui said. “We need the Department, the Board and the governor to work with us. So we can all truly ensure the safety our students deserve. “

Gov. David Ige released this statement:
“We have been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education on mitigation measures and making changes where appropriate. I firmly believe that in-person learning is best for the academic and emotional development of Hawaiʻi’s keiki, and I’m open to further discussions on keeping students and teachers safe and healthy in our public schools.”

On Aug. 13, the HSTA shared an open letter to DOE interim superintendent Keith Hayashi, the Hawaii Board of Education chair Catherine Payne and Gov. David Ige regarding student safety. The letter was signed by nearly 2,000 public school educators across the state.

The letter addressed health and safety guidelines that go enforced in schools, including lack of social distancing, improper ventilation and inconsistent mask-wearing.

Below are some of the main points listed in the letter:

  • Crowded classrooms
  • Large, in-person meetings
  • Protocols ignored, unenforceable
  • Lack of notification, inconsistent response and reporting
  • Delayed notification puts families at risk
  • Discrepancies in reporting
  • Underlying health and safety issues persist in our schools
  • Insufficient sanitization
  • Poor ventilation
  • Teaching under impossible circumstances
  • Just saying schools are safe doesn’t make it so

The letter, in part, reads: “Infection among children has also grown and even people who are fully vaccinated are susceptible to breakthrough infections. Children under 12 years old still have no access to vaccinations. Current health and safety protocols cannot counteract students sitting shoulder to shoulder in cramped classrooms or gathering unmasked in large crowds in the cafeteria.”

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Click here to read the letter.