Many private schools in Hawaii will start the new academic year with in-person classes, and some small campuses are ready to get rolling as soon as this week.
One of the first to launch will be La Pietra-Hawaii School for Girls, which reopens Thursday with 130 students in grades 6 through 12 on its Diamond Head campus. Given its size, it readily adjusted to COVID-19 pandemic requirements, said Tzana Saldania, communications coordinator.
“We’ve intentionally been small since the beginning of the school because of the benefits to learning, the benefits of personalized attention,” Saldania said. “Now that just really works for social distancing, too. … That tradition of having really small classes, of treating people as individuals, makes it easier to plan for these types of things.”
La Pietra’s classes typically have just seven or eight students, so that doesn’t need to change. Now everyone will wear masks in classrooms and stay 6 feet apart wherever possible, with Plexiglas barriers as needed, as well as other safety precautions, she said.
Philip Bossert, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, said flexibility is a hallmark for its 120 member schools, which is helpful during the pandemic.
“They can move pretty fast and do things responsibly without asking 10,000 people,” he said. “To my knowledge all of them have a plan to open face-to-face, but when will be entirely up to each of them. And they have a plan also to switch back to remote learning if necessary.”
Hawaii public schools have pushed back their opening date to Aug. 17. They were originally scheduled to open Tuesday.
As COVID-19 cases began to climb and advice from health authorities evolved this summer, some private schools have shifted gears. Punahou, for example, had planned to have students wear face shields rather than masks, but changed course last week based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have updated our policy to ensure we comply with CDC recommendations, and all of our students will wear masks,” said Virginia Loo, Punahou’s director of analytics and planning. “Our safety measures have been designed to create both a safe environment and one that maximizes learning. We know that the ability to see facial expressions has strong pedagogical value, which is why we originally planned to use face shields where that could be done safely.”
‘Iolani School has long planned to take face coverings a step further, with students wearing both masks and face shields indoors. It invited some students to campus last month to try them out, and found they were willing if it meant they could be with their friends, according to Timothy Cottrell, head of school.
Outside, where fresh air and breezes reduce potential spread of the coronavirus, students may pull down the masks for a break or while eating, but they will still wear the shields, which were designed and created on campus, with approval of medical experts. The school has already donated 16,000 shields to the community.
“Our whole strategy relies a lot on PPE (personal protective equipment), probably the way hospitals would, and hand sanitizing, and then we go to social distancing,” Cottrell said. “All of our classes are mapped to the 6-foot social distance with one-way exits … but what we are really focusing in on is everybody buys into using PPE and washing hands with a lot of regularity.”
“We can’t control contagion outside of our school for everybody when they’re off campus, but our goal is to make it incredibly difficult for transmission to occur on our campus,” he said in an interview.
The Hawaii Association of Independent Schools has sent out daily updates to members and held numerous virtual roundtables so school leaders can share their plans and questions, Bossert said.
“Each school is developing its own sort of plan on face masks or not, depending on the age of the students and also their collective parents,” Bossert said. “I’ve gotten so many emails from parents saying masks should be mandatory and an equal amount saying masks should not be used for kids. It’s just amazing.”
As COVID-19 cases started to surge in late July, more parents sought distance learning for their kids. On July 23, ‘Iolani gave families the option to have their children study entirely at home, after previously limiting that to people with medical reasons. On July 28, Mid-Pacific Institute did the same, offering a virtual learning option that requires parental involvement.
On Friday, the third day of triple-digit COVID-19 cases reported in Hawaii, Mid-Pacific pushed back the start of in-person instruction for high school students to Sept. 8. High schoolers will start distance learning Aug. 17, while younger students return to school for in-person classes that day.
“Our primary goal is to have elementary and middle school students on campus this fall because virtual instruction in younger grades is the most challenging for teachers, students, and parents,” Paul Turnbull, school president, wrote in an update to families. “Therefore, in order to reduce the number of overall foot traffic on campus and maintain a healthy environment for our younger students, we will stagger our high school’s return to campus this fall.”
Mid-Pacific has been a pioneer in technology use in education, he noted, but values in-person education.
“We are trying as hard as we can to bring people together face to face because we know instruction and that human interaction between a student and teacher isn’t easily translated in the virtual environment,” Turnbull said. “It can be done. But we are also wise enough to have a plan that if we have to go virtual, then we can shift back and forth.”
Punahou School expects to welcome almost all its students back to campus for in-person classes when school resumes Aug. 19. Out of 1,700 high school students, about 30 as of last week had been approved for full distance learning due to medical concerns. That health-based option is also available for individual students in younger grades, in consultation with their deans.
At Kamehameha Schools Kapalama, about 21% of students will do distance learning from home, partly because the boarding program was scaled back for health and safety reasons. Just 25 students — all neighbor island seniors — will be boarding, a steep drop from 388 students in total last year. At the Maui and Hawaii campuses, about 13% of students have signed up for distance learning.
The Kapalama campus expects to open up in a “moderate” risk level, which calls for a hybrid educational model with fewer students on campus at any one time combined with some distance learning. After an initial introductory period, plans call for students in elementary and middle school to come to campus every day. Face masks and face shields will be required indoors at first, but that guideline will be reassessed later.
“We will continue to actively monitor conditions, and our model gives us the flexibility to move in and out of distance learning as needed,” said Darren Pai, director of strategic communications for Kamehameha Schools.
A lot of private schools have reduced the number of students in classrooms and adjusted schedules to minimize interactions. They have added hand- washing stations and sanitizer dispensers and marked traffic to ensure pedestrian flow. Many are distancing students 6 feet apart when face to face, with some allowing 3 feet when side to side, and also using transparent partitions.
Most schools are screening all arrivals, in many cases with temperature checks. Punahou students will check in via a mobile app to confirm they are free of symptoms before arriving on campus and then pass through a thermal screening area that detects temperatures above 100 degrees to prompt further examination.
Schools also plan to keep track of students on campus in various ways to make contact tracing easier if COVID-19 cases do crop up. ‘Iolani students, for example, will use their phones to check in via QR codes at various locations on campus, including the outdoor tents where they will eat lunch, so the school will be able to track who was close to whom if cases crop up.
All this preparation comes at a price. For ‘Iolani, expenditures are up about $700 per student to cover pandemic needs, including more staff, technology infrastructure and sanitizing, Cottrell said.
“We are blessed as a school to have had support for a long time, so we have an endowment from which we can draw,” he said, as well as recent donations to the Raider Fund for pandemic relief.