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Desk Spacing, Other Safety Precautions Added to Hawaii Public School Reopening Plan

Cory Lum
Civil Beat

Public school students can expect six feet of space between desks when they return to classes in the fall, and teachers will decide if their students will wear a mask in the classroom.

 When classes resume on August 4th, some schools will hold all in-person classes, while others will have a mix of that and distance learning.

The safety precautions for both teachers and students were added to the public school reopening plan for the fall after the state Department of Education and the teachers union reached an agreement on Sunday.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said it was important to clarify how much space should be between desks. 

The department’s original plan allowed students who face the same direction to be spaced only three feet apart.

“We did come to agreement, that the rule would be that it would have to be six feet physical distance,” he said. 

“The reality is that sometimes there would be exceptions to the rule. I mean we can't be just so ironclad that you don't allow for any discussion. So there is a process to allow for exceptions.”

Schools can ask for an exemption to the six feet rule until July 21st. A four-person committee would have to approve the request. Two representatives would be appointed by HSTA and two would be appointed by the DOE. Both sides need to agree to any exemptions.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a statement that the department has been meeting extensively with teachers since school facilities closed in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"I appreciate the teams that worked collaboratively through the weekend to reach this agreement clarification, which includes a joint review process for school model success on behalf of our students," she said. 

"Our goal is to continue to collaborate with our school communities to create safe learning and work environments while mitigating the disruption to education experienced by our 180,000 public school students."

Inga Park-Okuna, Kalihi Uka Elementary school counselor, has been substitute-teaching summer school classes. She got a glimpse of what teachers will be experiencing come fall.

“So I had to walk around with the sanitizer. Every time they touch their face, I'd say, ‘Okay, wait, you just rubbed your nose. Clean your hands.’ It's gonna be such a challenge,” Park-Okuna said.

“We're expected to teach, instruct, right? But now add this layer of keep clean, keep your hands clean, keep your mask on. And all these little kids, the mask is always coming down off the face.”

Her summer school classes have ranged from 4 to 8 children. In the fall, her school will have space for about 18 students per class. 

The health of teachers is another issue. Rosenlee estimated about 30% to 40% of teachers are at high risk for infection.

He noted that teachers with underlying health conditions can seek accommodations under the Americans for Disability Act.

Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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