With tourists not expected to return in force until after Sept. 1, officials believe Aug. 4 is a safe time to open public schools in Hawaii so teachers and students can get rolling on the new academic year.
“We do not want to reopen our schools and receive more travelers simultaneously,” Gov. David Ige said Monday. “A phased approach will help ensure a safe return for our students and minimize other factors that could lead to the spread of COVID-19 that we have been able to carefully manage so far.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park joined Ige at a news conference to discuss reopening schools. Private schools, as well as colleges, are also gearing up to start in mid- to late August.
Starting school next month will give school staff, students and families a chance to get to know each other, learn new health protocols and get training in technology, officials said. That way, everyone will be better prepared for distance learning — full time if need be.
Given Hawaii’s current low rate of COVID-19 infections, health officials believe schools can restart safely, with proper precautions, including social distancing, masks and keeping students from mixing outside their groups.
An online tally of all 50 states by Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center showed Hawaii with the lowest number of confirmed cases per 100,000 residents as of Monday at 95. It also had lowest rate of fatalities from COVID-19 at 1.7 deaths per 100,000 residents, with Alaska close behind at 2.4.
”The rate of infection and the fatalities is the lowest in the country, and it is all because we have taken personal responsibility,” Ige said, urging people to continue limiting the spread of the new coronavirus by doing their part.
In the new school year, all public school parents will have the option to choose distance learning entirely for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, Kishi- moto said. But only about 16% of students are expected to opt for that, she said.
Most campuses will offer a mixed instructional approach, with students spending some days on campus and some learning at home to reduce the head count on campus and enable social distancing. Even while working at home, students will stay in contact with their teachers, she said.
Public school teachers return to campus July 29, while students are expected back on Aug. 4, with the first two weeks half-days for students, to ease the transition and provide more time for teacher training.
Payne, who chairs the Board of Education, declined to speculate on what might happen after tourists come back in the fall.
“What I’m sure of is that during August when we haven’t reopened (to tourism), that’s going to be a really critical time for setting up our students and teachers for success,” Payne said.
“This is a time when we can have the children and the teachers build some relationships,” she said. “If we want distance learning to be successful, we have to have those relationships. This is an opportunity in August to do that. I do believe the month of August will be a safe time.”
Kishimoto said the school system has procured more than 23,000 devices, such as computers and tablets, for high-needs students. It also will staff an Ohana Help Desk to help families cope with technology.
Wearing face coverings will be the norm for adults and children on campus, she said.
“All of our students and staff, unless there’s very young children where we’re teaching them around using the mask, everyone’s using the mask,” Kishimoto said, “There are time periods when we are encouraging our teachers and staff to make sure students have breaks from wearing a mask, when they’re outside, more than 6 feet of social distancing, get some fresh air.”
The superintendent said adults and students will be checked visually and through questioning for symptoms upon arrival, such as sore throat, cough or flushed cheeks indicating fever. Students with symptoms will be isolated until they are picked up. Kishi- moto said the governor had provided funding to hire more registered nurses to support school health aides.
The Department of Health will take the lead if any student or adult is diagnosed with COVID-19, and determine whether a classroom, building or school needs to be closed, for example, Kishimoto said.
The controversy over reopening schools reflects major upswings in cases in other states, but so far Hawaii is doing relatively well, Kishimoto said.
“I do want to emphasize that the prevalence of the virus, the number of cases that we are seeing in Hawaii, is lower than anywhere else in the country,” she said.
Payne said that delaying the start of school could harm students socially as well as academically, especially those with high needs.
“School closures have caused major disruptions to learning and development, exacerbating preexisting issues of access and equity,” Payne said. “Last school year our students lost 46 in-person instructional days, and each additional day will only increase the learning gaps for our students.”
Parents can find out what instructional model their school has selected by visiting hawaiipublicschools.org. Choose the article titled “School Year 2020-21 Models” and click on your child’s complex area, or call your school.