As public schools prepare to reopen, lawmakers and teachers remain on edge

Updated: Jul. 17, 2020 at 3:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Public schools are set to reopen on Aug. 4, but some lawmakers say that may be too soon.

At a legislative briefing Thursday, lawmakers questioned schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto on her plan for keeping students and personnel safe and cited concerns they’d received from teachers.

In response, Kishimoto pointed to success they’ve seen with social distancing over the summer.

“For in-person summer school we have the data that says it went really well,” Kishimoto told the panel. “Teachers that participated said let’s reopen. The parents that participated said ‘hey I was nervous about coming back but I feel better now that this worked.‘”

But senators said they were hearing a different story from teachers.

State Sen. Donna Mercaco Kim read from an email she received from a special education teacher.

“I don’t think a simple face shield, mask and gloves will fully protect me or my students. However, I’m told this will keep me safe. I do not feel safe,” the teacher wrote.

The discussion comes amid a nationwide debate about how to reopen school campuses. Health Director Bruce Anderson said unlike many parts of the mainland, Hawaii has a low enough prevalence of the coronavirus that in-person instruction can safely resume.

However, he said, “This isn’t a zero-risk situation. I’m willing to bet that we’re going to get cases very quickly showing up among kids in the classrooms.”

The DOE has said it will be using smaller class sizes, 6 feet of distancing, and ― especially in elementary schools ― keeping the same students with the same teacher through the day.

Schools will also be returning using different models to keep the daily population at each school low.

“In the case that someone does have it, at that point, does everyone from the class get sent home?” asked state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.

“Yes,” replied Kishimoto. “There’s a protocol for cleaning the classroom, they’re doing contact tracing, switching to distance learning to the extent possible and then identifying the protocol for reopening the classroom.”

“Keep this bubble concept with smaller classes through most of the day,” Anderson told lawmakers. “We can close that class without closing the entire school or certainly not the whole education system.”

Teachers also wrote lawmakers, telling them that they aren’t getting enough training to deal with in-class and distance learning.

“They feel, the majority that’s chiming in here, saying the same thing over and over: they need more time,” said state Sen. Kurt Fevella. “And the date that they’re giving is after Labor Day.”

After the meeting, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee told Hawaii News Now that no one wants to return to school more than teachers, but several feel they shouldn’t do so right now.

“I’m hearing reports from around the state that teachers would rather miss a year or retire because they just don’t feel that it’s a safe environment,” said Rosenlee.

Anderson also told the panel that because of continued uncertainty over the pandemic, things could still change rapidly between now and the first day of school.

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