Health Director Bruce Anderson said that the timing seems right for Hawaii’s public schools to reopen as planned on Aug. 4, but authorities will keep tabs on the coronavirus situation and shift gears as needed.
“Between now and Aug. 4, you may see things change dramatically here,” Anderson told the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 on Thursday. “In 40 other states, I would not consider opening schools at this point in time.”
“We have a very unique situation — in fact we have the lowest prevalence of disease of anywhere in the country,” he said. “So we have that privilege, if you will, of starting to look at this issue. We are going to be monitoring this daily and we will have some triggers as to whether or not we recommend the DOE close or not.”
With Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program pushed back until Sept. 1, the state can focus its efforts on restarting education from kindergarten through the university before an influx of visitors arrives from outside the state, he noted.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto also feels that the sequence of school opening first makes sense, after she consulted with the mayors and the governor.
“That gives us a chance to reopen up school and have four weeks of school before we start another major initiative in this state,” Kishimoto said.
“It’s never going to be without trepidation whenever we open up,” she added. “There’s trepidation if we don’t open up (schools) and there’s trepidation if we do.”
The schools will phase the opening by having students report for just half-days for the first two weeks. That will allow students, faculty and families to learn about and adjust to new safety measures. Teachers also will have training targeted to their needs while students aren’t on campus, Kishimoto said.
Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) pressed hard to delay the reopening until after Labor Day, saying educators aren’t ready yet and the extra time would allow for better training for all staff on new protocols and on distance learning.
“The majority of them that are chiming in are saying the same thing over and over: They need more time,” Fevella said. “And the date they’re giving is after Labor Day. They say they need more training to be more effective for the kids.”
He said his daughter will not be returning to campus next month because it could pose a risk to families such as his that have multiple generations in a household.
“She’s going to do online classes because I can’t get my Dad sick,” Fevella said. “He’s 88 years old.”
Kishimoto said about 15% of parents have indicated they want to keep their child at home full-time for distance learning. That figure could rise, she said, as it gets closer to the start of school. Families who opt for distance learning will need to stick with it until the end of the semester to ensure proper credit, she said.
“We have a distance learning platform that primarily serves secondary students,” Kishimoto said. “We are also procuring a new system for K through 5 (kindergarten through fifth grade.)”
Most schools have chosen “blended” schedules that rotate on-campus and distance learning, so students attend school on different days. That reduces the daily population on campus to allow for social distancing. Elementary schools are making face-to-face instruction a priority for children in kindergarten through second grade.
Plans to reopen schools call for minimizing the mixing of students. By keeping students in a small group or “bubble” every day, if a child tests positive for COVID-19, just one classroom would need to be closed and only the child’s contacts would need to stay home for 14 days.
“In the hierarchy of things I would certainly put the starting of schools as a very important activity, but it has to be under appropriate conditions,” Anderson said. “Just today one of the things the governor asked me to do is convene a group of experts in this area representing all the counties to look at what the trigger points would be for opening and closing of schools. How much disease is too much in our community?”
Although cases have risen in Hawaii in recent weeks, they remain relatively rare given the state’s population of 1.4 million people and its high testing rate. Anderson noted that COVID-19 poses less of a threat to children than it does to older people. Of the 19 cases reported Thursday, just one was in an adolescent.
“Another factor in risk is you look at the number of young people who have died from COVID-19,” Anderson said. “One in a thousand are under 18 years old — one in a thousand. The disease is far more serious for older people. That doesn’t necessarily help the teachers, of course, or the faculty who are worried. But for the kids themselves the risk is relatively low for serious disease.”