Board of Education holds off on approving plan to reopen public school campuses

Board of Education holds off on approving plan to reopen public school campuses
The Board of Education, which oversees the Department of Education, deferred action on an agreement with the state teachers' union to reopen schools. (Source: Hawaii News Now/file)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Board of Education is delaying approval of a plan to reopen public school campuses this fall amid concerns over whether the precautions being taken are enough.

On Thursday night, the BOE deferred action on an agreement between the state Department of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association to reopen schools.

A spokeswoman for the DOE said the deferral was “a symbolic gesture to ensure that the department resolves any lingering misunderstanding.”

The memorandum of understanding has already been in effect since July 27, when the state and the HSTA signed it.

Thousands of educators and parents testified, citing concerns about unsafe social distancing protocols.

Most of the concerns revolved around the 3 feet versus 6 feet of distance between students, as well as policies regarding wearing face coverings.

The DOE said students’ desks can be 3 feet apart as long as they’re not facing each other.

[READ MORE: Public schools identify which teaching models they’ll use come fall]

Face coverings are also not required in classrooms.

The DOE said it used guidance from state health officials, but some teachers are not convinced.

“My concern is just that if three feet is acceptable in our school, why isn’t that the case everywhere else in our lives? You know, at restaurants? At grocery stores?” At our airports?” " asked Brandon Cha, a science teacher at Pearl City High School.

“The desks are three feet apart. You know, you can just reach across and you could hold hands with someone, and then you can turn around and cough in someone’s face,” said Inga Park Okuna, Kalihi Uka Elementary School’s counselor.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said that there’s evidence that three feet distance can be as effective as six feet, but under certain conditions.

“The CDC recommends having six feet. The World Health Organization recommends having three feet. I think the AAP probably split the difference and wanted to do what was feasible,” said Dr. Michael Ching, president of the Hawaii chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“There are definitely risks to not being in school,” Ching added. “Things like social isolation, depression and child abuse. So we at the AAP want to begin the conversation with how to get kids back to school.”

Even though the current recommendation will allow the three-foot distance, many teachers said they will keep desks farther apart.

“At our school, at Kalihi Uka, we figured out a way to put the desks six feet apart. We actually have done this. We also made the class sizes smaller,” said Okuna.

“We’ve been very lucky that our administration has been prioritizing our safety. And he’s been saying that we’ll be going with six feet, regardless of what the department says,” said Cha.

Other educators wanted to push back the Aug. 4 start date.

The DOE said schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is expected to meet with HSTA again soon.

Copyright 2020 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.