Amid COVID-19 surge in Hawaii, reopening of public schools delayed

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Updated: Jul. 31, 2020 at 1:48 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Board of Education on Thursday voted to delay the reopening of public schools by two weeks ― until Aug. 17.

The delay is designed to give teachers, principals, and other staff members additional time to prepare for the return of students to campuses and train on distance learning tools.

It also comes as Oahu continues to see a surge in COVID-19 infections.

“This issue has divided our community amid these uncertain times. There are no perfect answers,” said schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, in a statement.

“We acknowledge this move effectively delays student instruction, and we are fully committed to preparing our schools to safely welcome students back on Aug. 17.”

The state Education Department had hoped to reopen public school campuses on Aug. 4.

But as the date neared, educators raised growing concerns about the planned return, saying schools were simply not return to welcome students back safely.

Hundreds of people testified at the Board of Education meeting Thursday before their vote and many said a delay was simply the right thing to do.

“We are woefully unprepared to have students begin attending school face-to-face at this time,” said Rebecca Hadley Schlosser, a special education teacher at Nanaikapono Elementary School on Oahu.

“I urge you to think about the health and safety of our keiki, as well as as the staff who work at the school with with the school.”

Juan Espinal, a teacher at Konawaena Elementary on Hawaii island, also expressed concerns.

“You all have staff all over this state that are willing to die for this. And that is the honest truth because we have already sacrificed so much,” Espinal said.

[READ MORE: Hawaii Department of Education’s plan for the 2020-2021 school year]

But others expressed concern about students missing more instructional time.

“We have to recognize that our schools are a lifeline for students and families, and we should explore all options regarding the 180 days to make up for missed time,” said David Miyashiro, of the group Hawaii Kids Can, referring to the number of instructional days required under state law.

Hawaii’s public school campuses closed in March and the state Department of Education has acknowledged spotty success in reaching its 180,000 public school students through distance learning.

“I find myself in a really really difficult situation,” Kishimoto told the board. “It’s been a four and half months gap and we’re adding two weeks to it.”

Board members were also torn.

Several were concerned about reports that there were six positive COVID-19 cases during summer school, including one on Kauai and five on Oahu.

“It perplexes me that we as board members continue to get the most important and significant information from press releases, news conferences and media reports,” said board member Dwight Takeno.

“My concern is this lack of transparency ... as it not only jeopardizes the credibility of the department and the board, but unfortunately only harms the students that we were entrusted to serve and protect.”

HSTA president Corey Rosenlee also was perplexed about the DOE’s failure to alert the community about the positive cases at summer schools.

“I’ll tell you as a parent I would be livid if there a positive case at my daughter’s campus and it was not shared with me,” he said.

Kishimoto said the information on positive cases in schools comes from the state Department of Health, not the Department of Education.

“We have not established a way in which we report, or I report to the board, any incidents, or how then we take a DOH report,” Kishimoto told the board.

Rosenlee said he was glad that the board approved delaying the start of classes for students. But he adds that there’s still a lot of uncertainty as the number of cases continues to rise in the islands.

“At some point there needs to be a serious conversation about whether cases will explode in Hawaii if we try to bring in over 20-thousand employees and 180,000 students to campuses.”

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