Board approves plan to delay Hawaii school year start

HONOLULU — Hawaii’s Board of Education approved Thursday an agreement to delay the start of public schools.

Students across Hawaii were originally scheduled to return to school on Aug. 4. But the statewide teachers union led an effort to delay, saying the state Department of Education didn’t sufficiently plan for safely reopening schools during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The department and unions later agreed to a new date of Aug. 17. The board voted after hours of testimony and discussion.

Teachers returned to work Wednesday as originally planned. Out of about 13,000 teachers, 160 didn’t come to work, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said.

Parent Burke Burnett’s testimony cited the 124 newly confirmed cases the state reported Thursday. “It is obvious … that now is not that time to open in-person classroom instruction,” he said. “The current reopening plan is reckless. It will make people sick. Some of them will die.”

Another parent, Genna Javier, opposed the delay. Students who don’t want to return to school have the option for distance learning, she said in previously submitted written testimony.

Teachers keep raising new complaints while pushing for a delay, she said: “I fear if we keep going down this road, there will be no school ever because nothing is ever going to be just right.”

School board member Bruce Voss was the only member to vote against the delay. “This proposed schedule change … is just a very bad deal for students,” he said. He said he thinks students should begin distance learning next week as originally planned and allow individual schools in the statewide district to decide when to transition to in-person learning.

Most schools across Hawaii will be using a blended approach where students alternate between in-person and online instruction. A handful of schools with enough space to keep desks 6 feet (2 meters) apart will open to full face-to-face instruction.

“We are sending them back too early,” said Kileigh Sanchez, a teacher at Leeward Oahu’s Waianae Intermediate School, who supports distance learning for the first quarter. Classrooms at her school, she said, are the “dirtiest, most poorly ventilated, confined spaces” and teachers are being asked to take “invisible bullets.”

Board member Dwight Takeno said he’s concerned about a lack of transparency from the education department. He said he learned about eight COVID-19 cases at summer school programs from a Hawaii News Now report.

The board postponed a vote on whether to approve reducing the 180-day school year. The plan would take away nine instructional days to be used for staff training and professional development.

School officials are trying to negotiate finding an additional three instructional days, Kishimoto said.

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