BOE approves delay to start date; students now will return Aug. 17

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Hawaii’s students will return to school nearly two weeks later than initially planned after the state Board of Education approved a recommendation to delay their start to Aug. 17.

The action to revise the 2020-21 academic calendar came during a special meeting Thursday.

In a memo to the BOE, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto recommended approval of the delay — a move agreed to by the state Department of Education, Hawaii Government Employees Association, United Public Workers and Hawaii State Teachers Association — and said it will provide teachers and employees an additional nine days without students for training and professional development, including mandatory department-directed and administrator-directed training.

Before a regular meeting of the BOE last week, thousands of pages of written testimony were submitted, wherein many teachers and parents urged a delay from the original Aug. 4 start date. However, because the matter wasn’t on the agenda, no action was taken at that time.

Hundreds of pages of additional written testimony were submitted before Thursday’s special meeting and the board heard more than two hours of oral testimony from educators and parents.

Many urged a delay. Some called for a phased reopening. Others pushed for distance learning. Some teachers voiced concern about receiving proper training.

Jenifer Tsuji, a music teacher at Keonepoko Elementary School in Pahoa, urged the board to approve the delay to allow teachers more time to prepare.

“Many of my students need to return to school as soon as possible to get needed stability socially, nutritionally and academically,” she wrote in submitted testimony. “Having a safe place where they can learn and be fed is a huge priority.

“But the ‘safe place’ and ‘as soon as possible’ are things that are still not guaranteed at this point.”

Many students are dependent on grandparents and elderly relatives for child care, she wrote.

“Without more research, training and preparation, we cannot assure these families safety from the COVID-19 virus,” Tsuji wrote.

Juan Espinal, a teacher at Konawaena Elementary School, testifying Thursday, said he needs more training.

“I have just come to my campus as of yesterday and I love my campus. I really do. It is therapeutic to be here, but I cannot deny the frustrations and the feelings that I have as I really start thinking about doing this work,” he told the board. “And the reality is you all have staff all over this state that are willing to die for this, and that is the honest truth, because we have already sacrificed so much. Any teacher will tell you we do not do it for anything but the love of our community. …

“As you continue to make your decisions, as you continue to make your choices, I hope you start to think past just Aug. 4, past Aug. 17,” he continued. “I’m talking about … 10 years from now as we look back at the decisions that are made now, and whether or not they were the right decisions for the health and safety of our entire (community). And as we think about them, please understand when you think of training, out here in Kona, we have not always had the benefit of getting as much professional development, so I please urge you to consider us out here on the outer islands as well.”

Not everyone was in favor of the move.

Board member Bruce Voss cast the lone “no” vote and said the change to the school calendar was a “very bad deal for students” who will lose nine instructional days.

“It’s unclear how students will benefit from these (additional) training days,” he said. “I think we should reject this schedule and I think instruction should begin next week Tuesday in distance learning at all schools, then each school should decide when it’s ready to transition to (classroom instruction).”

Each school is different, and some might be ready next week, while others might need more time, Voss said.

“Each school knows best when it’s ready to transition to in-class learning,” he continued. “Not us, not the department. Most importantly, we as a board should not be taking away from our students any more instructional days that they’re entitled to by law. To me, that’s just wrong.”

The BOE was still discussing an agenda item dealing with board expectations regarding additional training, mask requirements and guidance from the state Department of Health as of press time.

As the COVID-19 situation evolves or as new health guidance becomes available, the DOE will adjust its reopening plan to ensure a safe learning and working environment is provided for students, teachers and staff. Updates about the school year will continue to be posted on the department’s website and social media platforms.

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The board on Thursday also postponed a decision on waiving the statutory requirement that the 2020-21 school year include 180 instructional days and will revisit the topic at a later date.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.