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‘Every day is a risk’: Teachers union files grievances against DOE over COVID concerns

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 10:29 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 8, 2021 at 5:20 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The teachers union has filed two grievances against the state Department of Education, claiming educators are being forced to work in unsafe conditions.

Amid an ongoing COVID surge in the islands, the Hawaii State Teacher Association is calling on the DOE to provide more resources, flexibility and a chance to be heard.

“I would exponentially put that up there — that every day is a risk,” said Aaron Kubo, a social studies teacher at Hilo Intermediate. “And that risk is growing and growing and so is the stress.”

Kubo said during the first week of classes, he had 17 students out of the classroom who had either contracted COVID or had close contact with someone who’d gotten sick.

At his 90-year-old campus, Kubo said social distancing is not realistic.

“As teachers, you know, we are trying to be mitigating of those strategies, but it’s very stressful for us to actually try and handle all those and first teach, right?” said Kubo.

“And then worry about kids that are coming in and out of quarantine.”

On Oahu, several students said school leaders are doing their best.

“Everybody’s pretty much listening, but some people don’t really social distance as much,” said Aidan Sugitan, a fifth grader at Maemae Elementary School. “Sometimes they gather around.”

“We just wear a mask, three feet apart, but if it’s on the ground, three squares apart,” said Braylen Fujikawa, who is a fifth grader at Moanalua Elementary.

“The vice principal walks around and reminds people to wear their masks at all times,” added Moanalua Elementary School student Toran Takara.

But masks are only part of the equation.

HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. said teachers and school administrators are having to do contact tracing themselves.

“A lot of times the administrators are just looking at a seating chart from a teacher and making a decision based on what they see on the seating chart as to who to quarantine,” Tui said.

“We’re seeing that some of our parents are sending their kids to school. They may have sent them to get a test, but they’re not even waiting for the result, where they might even know that their children have COVID or have siblings of COVID and are continuing to send their students to school.”

In two grievances filed last week, the HSTA says teachers are having to work extra hours and being forced to teach remotely while on sick leave.

And the option to teach from home is only reserved for new hires.

“And then we’re seeing teachers who are home, using up their sick leave to be safe, that would be more than willing to teach some of these distance learning courses are not being allowed to do so,” said Tui.

“And the department is just saying, ‘Sorry, we’re only accepting new hires for these distance learning teachers and that really is frustrating.”

Some parents said that schools should be looking into more learning options.

“I think they should go to like maybe partial where you cut the classroom in half and cut the class size in half,” said Moanalua Elementary parent Tracy Fujikawa. “So many days on, so many days off and you alternate.”

Meanwhile, the other grievance filed is about testing mandates for employees who are unvaccinated. The teachers union is pushing for more free testing sites.

With these grievances filed, teachers said they just want to be heard.

“I really wish the department would come and bargain with us because seriously, it doesn’t feel like we’re being heard and we’re being ignored,” said Kubo.

Interim schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi released the following statement:

From the onset of the COVID pandemic in March 2020, the Department has been engaged in semi-monthly and monthly meetings with the HSTA on COVID-related issues that affect teachers covered under Bargaining Unit 5.

Hayashi said they remain focused on providing safe in-person learning for all students.

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