Monday, Sept. 25, 2023 |
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LIHU‘E— Kaua‘i teachers and administrators are struggling to keep schools open for in-person learning.
“Everybody who works in the building is just doing their best to make it work. But there’s only so much that we can do before everybody has a breaking point,” said Sarah Tochiki, a music teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. “Everybody’s working so hard to keep schools open.”
But Tochiki, vice president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association Kaua‘i chapter, felt that the district wasn’t meeting the needs of staff.
“We’re saying we need help, but (the district) is like, ‘You guys got it, you’re fine. No worries.’”
According to Tochiki, staffing shortages and student absences are a struggle at CKMS. Currently, school administrators are primarily responsible for covering classes without a teacher or substitute teacher. However, if an administrator needs to cover multiple classes at once all of those students are put in large spaces, like the cafeteria, and directed to socially distance and work independently.
Teachers across the district are reporting similar situations.
Thursday, state Department of Education Kaua‘i Area Complex Superintendent Paul Zina notified families that some classes, or even entire schools, may need to transition to distance learning on short notice due to the staffing situation. Zina emphasized that this would be a last resort if all other resources are exhausted.
The notification did not surprise Tochiki, as she has seen the mounting challenges at her school first-hand. Tochiki wishes there had been more coordination and transparency before the announcement.
“It’s frustrating because I know that more minds together to problem-solve is always better than one person making decisions,” said Tochiki.
On Jan. 10, the HSTA filed a notice to commence collective bargaining. The HSTA has filed several such notices this school year, but it appears that the HIDOE is taking advantage of an August emergency proclamation issued by Gov. David Ige stating that a scope of negotiations could be suspended to ensure government could provide essential services. That section of the proclamation expired Saturday.
The HSTA notice voices concerns that two memos issued by the state DOE sent out in early January violate teacher contracts because the memos require changes to the working conditions without collective bargaining.
HSTA continues to request more transparency, and asked that the state DOE provide lists of daily teacher and student absences and provide a list of all available COVID-19 testing on campuses and worksites.
In December, the state DOE released a report that stated 81% of schools offer some type of COVID-19 testing, but the state DOE has not responded to The Garden Island’s requests for more-detailed information.
The situation in schools was predicted back at the Dec. 16 state Board of Education meeting, as several community members, including teachers, pled with the state DOE during to take more action to prepare for a surge.
Members of the BOE pushed the department for answers regarding how the state DOE planned to use vaccination, testing and distance learning to prepare for the surge and possible staffing shortage.
While the department did provide information on significant efforts to improve testing and vaccination and combat staffing shortages, they declined to provide concrete guidance on what a transition to distance learning would look like, and emphasized a commitment to in-person learning.
Now that some schools and classrooms are being forced to transition due to lack of staffing, teachers are feeling left in the dark.
“There’s no real solid plan (for distance learning),” Tochiki said. “It’s just kind of like, ‘if we have to, we will.’ But I’m not sure how that’s going to work in a secondary school.”
For HSTA President Osa Tui, the lack of preparation is unacceptable. “There should have been more (preparation) before omicron. We were saying before, if delta is on the decline, we don’t know what is coming up next,” Tui said.
Throughout the school year, HSTA has advocated for safer working conditions for staff, clear and consistent safety protocols, and better preparation for COVID surges, but has had little collaboration with the state DOE.
“This has become like the movie ‘Groundhog’s Day,’ where we just wake up and it’s the same thing over and over again,” said Tui.
Meanwhile COVID cases in Kaua‘i schools continue to rise. Between Jan. 6 and 13, the state DOE reported 3,984 cases in schools as of Friday afternoon. Of those cases, 264 were on Kaua‘i. The actual case count is presumed to be much higher with statewide testing shortages and the availability of at-home COVID tests, which are not factored into case counts.
There are concerns about the accuracy of the data. Friday, state DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi apologized for some schools’ COVID-19 data not making it on to the state dashboard. Accurate reporting of state DOE COVID cases is required by law.
Laurel Smith, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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