In Jodi Kunimitsu’s math class at Maui High, student absences have steadily increased over the past week.

On Tuesday, the first day back to school for Hawaii public school students after a two-week winter break, a third of the 26 students in a single period did not come to school. As of Wednesday, 46% of the students had left. And on Friday, more than half of the students were absent, resulting in a class with only 11 children.

“It’s crazy,” the high school math teacher said on Friday. “The absenteeism rate has been very high. Some students have emailed me telling me that they are not feeling well or that some parents are not comfortable sending their students to school until they have been tested or boosted.

Like school systems nationwide, the Hawaii Department of Education faced many challenges in the first week of the second half of the school year amid the latest wave of Covid- 19, which is caused by the highly contagious variant of omicron.

Hawaii’s DOE couldn’t provide the total number of student absences across the state for the first week of January, but individual teachers shared a high truancy rate in their classes. Ludwig Laab / Civil Beat / 2021

Over 800 teachers made sick daily, while roughly the same number did not show up to school for other reasons. Meanwhile, schools have also seen large numbers of students miss school.

“Some are staying at home because they or their families are nervous about the omicron variant,” said Jonathon Medeiros, professor of language arts at Kauai High. He said 20 of his 60 students were absent on a single day last week. “I’m nervous about the number of people getting sick and the number of people getting sick every day.”

The DOE has remained firm in its decision to keep children in school instead of resorting to distance learning as many schools on the continent have done. But critics say the high number of teacher absences has forced many children to be parked in gyms or cafeterias supervised by non-teaching staff, which has resulted in little learning anyway.

“You are removing out-of-school teachers, counselors removed from their jobs… you have to go babysitting, security guards are removed,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association chief Osa Tui Jr., earlier this week.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said on Friday she did not have cumulative data on student absences to share for the first week.

But continuing staff shortages prompted Acting Superintendent Keith Hayashi to advise superintendents and managers of complex areas on Thursday to invoke so-called emergency missions if necessary, meaning a manager could reassign employees as supervisors. counselors, registrars and coordinators of classroom curricula for a period not exceeding 10 days.

“If the principal exhausts all available alternatives and is still not available to cover the class (such as finding a replacement), the principal, in the best interest of the well-being of the students, may invoke (this school code)”, Hayashi said in a note released Thursday.

He called the practice “an extraordinary measure to be invoked in order to minimize disruption to existing classrooms,” but said it should not be applied to combine two separate classrooms under one teacher.

Hawaii not alone

The challenge of getting school back in the midst of the wave is affecting school districts across the country. New York City Public Schools, the largest school system in the country which also resumed in-person learning last week, saw persistent student absences with no more than three quarters of students attending school daily.

The problem has been exacerbated in Hawaii and elsewhere by the lack of sufficient substitute teachers.

Hawaii Department of Education Covid-19 dashboard reported a record number of positive cases in the first week of January, reaching more than 400 cases in 97 schools on Tuesday, or more than 1,500 cases in the first days of January alone.

One reassuring point is that the latest variant does not result in any significant increase in the number of young children requiring hospitalization, according to Melinda Ashton, executive vice president and head of quality at Hawaii Pacific Health.

“We notice that about half of the children, who are admitted with something else, test positive for Covid-19 on admission,” she said. “We still find that the majority of children hospitalized have not been vaccinated, including children five years and older.”

Dalen Izumo, Grade 4 Honowai Primary School teacher, with a large screen and students using laptops.
Acting Superintendent Keith Hayashi told principals they could invoke a code that reassigns teachers to other duties due to severe staff shortages. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Teachers who work the duration of a typical school year, ie 10 months, are granted 18 days of sick leave per year. There are additional leave called “quarantine leave”, which is special short-term paid leave, if they provide a doctor’s note stating that the employee’s presence at work “would endanger the health of others”.

This leave can be used when a teacher is on a quarantine order, has symptoms of Covid, or has been advised by a healthcare professional to self-isolate. There is no limit to the number of quarantine days that can be taken in any given year, provided a doctor’s prescription is provided.

In the field, the disruptions mean that many children are forced to adapt to changes in their normal routines.

Brandon Maher, 16, a junior at Maui High, said his class was redirected to the cafeteria for more than a day last week due to a lack of a classroom instructor. “We just sit there on our phones and don’t do anything,” he said. “I’ve only had to do this twice, but I’ve had replacements for several (other) courses.”

Her younger sister, Cailyn, 12, a seventh grade student at Lokelani Intermediate in Kihei, said a security guard had to step in to supervise one of her classes. She also had to take another science class after her regular physical education class was canceled due to lack of an instructor.

Their mother, Erin Hayden-Baldauf, who teaches study skills at Lokelani Intermediate, said it was quite common not to have enough substitute teachers. “It’s been like this since August,” she said. “Shortages have never been more severe than this year. We were always short of staff, the problem is that the submarines don’t want to work… for money for garbage.

The teacher also said that it was emotionally trying to see the large number of students out of school since the winter break and that it was very difficult to introduce new concepts or make sure that her whole class was attended. on the same wavelength at any given time.

“This week there are a lot more student absences, a lot more,” she said. “I can’t keep teaching new things in the future – kids who aren’t here won’t be caught up, and I can’t re-teach the same things over and over again, that’s not fair no more. “

Lanai High and Elementary School students head to class in the morning before the starting bell rings.
The students spent the last two weeks of December on winter vacation, just when the omicron variant was in full swing. On January 4, the DOE reported a total of 419 cases in 87 schools, a new record since 182 cases were spread across 100 schools last August. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

The teachers’ union berated DOE officials for failing to come up with better emergency measures due to the Covid disruption or negotiating with union officials to prepare a distance learning plan.

However, some school administrators have said it still makes sense for schools in Hawaii to remain open for in-person instruction for now. The DOE said it is important to continue to offer in-person instruction and that it will be up to each school to determine whether the switch to virtual learning will be necessary.

“If we shut down our school system, we disrupt the whole state,” said Bob Davis, superintendent of the Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua complex area in Oahu, referring to the impacts on other industries and parents. who should find child care. . He said that in his complex area, district area staff fill in as needed when teachers call in sick.

“We are in a pandemic,” he said. “Yes, students are currently receiving inferior daily education because of the situation, but the majority of students are receiving a proper and well-deserved education. “

Education Council President Catherine Payne said on Friday she had asked the DOE to provide more individualized data on the supports needed at each school. She said she was not planning a statewide shutdown or temporary transition to full distance learning – as several individual charter schools do, as well as University of Hawaii Campus and Chaminade University – but that it is important to note the circumstances in individual areas where the rate of Covid infection may be above normal.

“Some schools have a harder time keeping children masked and others are much more compliant,” she said by way of example. “We really need to look at the situation individually, school by school, and not just as it (affects) teachers, but also cafeteria workers, teaching assistants and security. “