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Teachers Union: First Weeks of School 'Incredibly Alarming as COVID-19 Case Counts Skyrocket'


While thousands of students returned to in-person learning this month, the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association says the first weeks of school have been "incredibly alarming as COVID-19 case counts skyrocket to record levels."

More than 2,000 teachers signed an open letter sent last week to the state Department of Education, detailing inadequacies in safety policies and protocols related to COVID-19.

HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. says teachers were promised that the system would enforce strict safety protocols.

"In many of our classrooms, students are forced to sit side-by-side at desks that seat two students. They’re also standing in long lines and crowded cafeterias, where all are entitled to free meals this year," he said. "Our teachers also say protocols are being inconsistently enforced from school to school. Some administrators err on the side of caution by quarantining an entire class when a positive case is reported."

"Other schools have quarantined just a positive child, without identifying any close contact. And then there’s the problem of timing — positive cases on a Friday could mean that close contacts aren’t notified until Monday," Tui added.

The DOE and HSTA had an agreement ensuring safer workplaces last school year, but it has since expired and the union says the DOE has refused to negotiate protocols to address concerns.

"HSTA continues to stand ready and willing to work as partners in this process. We urge you to join us in finding solutions that acknowledge the reality of our current conditions as we support our keiki through this difficult time," the letter to state officials said.

In response to the concerns raised by Hawaiʻi teachers, DOE Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi replied with the following statement:

"In-person learning is the best education model for successful student outcomes, and we are confident that our schools provide a safe environment for students and staff. It is our duty and responsibility to keep our schools open for students who need us not only for in-person learning, but for socialization, services tied to mental health, and even meals. But we cannot do this alone.

Our schools are doing everything within their control to diligently implement the core essential strategies set by the state Department of Health, and evidence so far shows that these efforts are working. While community transmission levels have increased, we have no known cases of students getting sick with COVID-19 as a result of coming to school and there is no evidence indicating our schools are amplifiers of transmission.

Using multiple mitigation measures consistently and in combination gives schools the flexibility to achieve safe learning environments even when not every mitigation measure can be applied. The core essential strategies schools are implementing consistently are: promoting vaccinations for staff and eligible students, staying home when ill, consistent and correct masking, and proper hand hygiene. Cohorting, physical distancing, improving ventilation, and cleaning and disinfection, meanwhile, are additional mitigation strategies to be applied in combination to the greatest extent possible.

This guidance has been set by the state Department of Health, based on the best available evidence and in collaboration with such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics-Hawaii Chapter, Hawaii Keiki Nurses, the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools and others. It is also aligned with the CDC's Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools."

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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