The state Board of Education will consider a proposal Thursday to push back the start of school for students to Aug. 17.
Before a regular meeting of the BOE last week, thousands of pages of written testimony were submitted, wherein many teachers and parents urged a delay from the original Aug. 4 start date.
Some cited the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, while others argued more time was needed to better prepare for the return of students in the midst of the pandemic.
However, because the matter wasn’t on the agenda, no action was taken at that time.
In a statement issued Monday, state Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said Department of Education leaders have been working with unions throughout the coronavirus crisis to ensure students get the education they deserve and employees have a safe work environment.
“We have continued these conversations and reached a conditional agreement (Monday) to propose a delayed start for students to accommodate concerns regarding employee training,” Kishimoto said.
“Throughout our discussions, we were mindful that any adjustments to the calendar must focus on educating and supporting students,” she continued. “We also acknowledge the voice of our families, partners and employees who are not represented by the unions yet are impacted by this decision.
“We will use this time to prepare at yet another level, but I recognize this comes at a cost for public school parents and our students. My expectation is that if the board approves the two week delay, that our labor partners will do an aggressive push to their members to be at schoolhouse doors on Day One for our students.”
A special virtual BOE meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday. More information about the meeting can be found online at boe.hawaii.gov.
The board will discuss a revised 2020-21 school calendar during the meeting.
In a memo to the BOE, Kishimoto recommended approval of the delay to Aug. 17 — which was agreed upon by the DOE, Hawaii Government Employees Association, and United Public Workers — and said the move provides teachers and employees an additional nine days without students for training and professional development, including mandatory department-directed and administrator-directed training.
DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said the department is creating a plan that documents clearly what training will be mandated for each employee group.
There will be four full days set aside to train all employee groups. It will include distance-learning training for all classroom teachers and substitutes, and sanitation and COVID response training for custodians, she said.
During a press conference last week, the Hawaii State Teachers Association also called on state leaders to delay students’ Aug. 4 return to school, citing many unanswered questions surrounding the planned reopening and saying more time is needed to create a healthy and safe environment.
“All those on the front lines of our schools recognized that we were not ready for students to come yet, that there were many things that needed to be in place to make sure we could provide for the health and safety of our keiki,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee in an interview Tuesday.
Pushing the start date to Aug. 17 will give everyone time to implement as many procedures and protocols as possible to ensure campuses are safe, he said, but Rosenlee added there still are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Training still needs to occur, and written guidance from the state Department of Health has not been received, he said.
“So while this is a good first step, we know there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” he said.
In a Facebook Live stream on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island physician, said he doesn’t think it’s fair to force DOE employees to go back to work if they aren’t comfortable doing so.
“I think we’re just going to have to accept that the sky’s not going to fall if we have to go slow on education and go slow on reopening,” he said. “We’re going to have to talk about that, for sure, about what the federal government’s going to do and how the state’s going to manage things, financially.”
Although most testimony last week urged the BOE to delay students’ return to school, some advocated for keiki to return as scheduled.
“I find it concerning that our teachers (HSTA) are not willing to open up our schools again,” an anonymous parent said in submitted written testimony. “They’ve had since March to plan how they can keep the students socially distanced, getting paid to stay at home while doing so. … Let our students get back to school. They’re already behind half a year. The keiki are in their prime time to be learning and cannot waste any more time.”
Other agenda items
Also on Thursday, the BOE will take action on a waiver of the 180-day and 1,080 student hours requirements for the new school year.
In a memo to the board, Kishimoto said the waiver will give the DOE “necessary flexibility to adjust the school calendar to allow for additional training and personal development as well as health and safety protocols.”
Chambers said if a waiver is granted, the missed days won’t be required to be made up.
“That said, the department is committed to maintaining the standard 180 instructional days for the upcoming school year and is mindful of the major disruptions school closures have caused in learning and development,” she said.
Rosenlee said the HSTA will have conversations with the DOE and other unions about using other days within the school year to make up lost instruction days.
“There’s a reason why we have schools, and we know the value of education for our keiki,” he said when asked about the HSTA’s concerns regarding lost instruction time. “No one would choose this, but we’re choosing between, in this case, two evils.”
The coronavirus should be treated like any other natural disaster, Rosenlee said.
The board also is expected to take action on several other items. These include expectations regarding additional training and professional development, the possibility of starting student instruction in distance-learning mode, mandating masks on school campuses and urging the DOH to provide written and publicly posted guidance for reopening schools.
Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.