The first four weeks of the public school year on Oahu will be entirely online starting Aug. 17 in a move to help buffer the recent surge in coronavirus infections.
Many of the island’s private schools announced they would be starting the school year with distance learning too, including Punahou, ‘Iolani, Mid-Pacific, Kamehameha and Island Pacific Academy.
The developments come on a day when the state announced two more virus- related deaths and 201 new cases amid a troubling period of rapid COVID-19 growth in the islands.
Friday’s daily case total capped a week of growing triple-digit numbers. With health officials warning that cases and virus-related hospitalizations will continue to rise on Oahu, Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Thursday announced restrictions on large gatherings, the closure of beaches and parks, and the revival of a mandatory 14-day interisland quarantine, only this time for travel to islands other than Oahu.
On Friday, Ige and state Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, speaking at a virtual press conference, announced an all-online start of public schools as an additional measure to stem the tide of COVID-19 on Oahu.
Schools on the neighbor islands, which are experiencing much fewer virus cases, will start the year as previously scheduled with blended learning models, although educators in each of the outer districts will decide exactly how to go forward next week, the superintendent said.
Students were originally due back on campus Aug. 4. To deal with the pandemic, officials planned new protocols and a mix of traditional in-school instruction and distance learning in a move to limit the spread of COVID-19.
But concern that schools needed more time to prepare prompted the state Board of Education to adopt the later Aug. 17 start date.
The latest plan did not require BOE approval, the superintendent said, because distance learning is one of the options available to the department’s schools under the back-to-school plan already endorsed by the board.
Earlier on Friday, Hawaii’s public teacher’s union called on the governor and the state Department of Education to switch to 100% online instruction in light of the COVID-19 spike.
“Hawaii can no longer pretend we are not in the middle of a pandemic and somehow our keiki and our teachers are impervious to this virus,” Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee declared during a virtual press conference in the morning.
Kishimoto on Friday said there will be three phases to the start of the new year:
>> First phase, in-person training (Aug. 17-20): Students will physically return to campus on a coordinated and scheduled basis, determined by each individual school, to connect with their teachers, receive training on the distance learning platforms, and address issues with connectivity and access to technology. Special considerations will be given to vulnerable students and their families for more in-person access to the school and teachers.
Starting on Aug. 17, Oahu cafeterias will be serving only grab-and-go meals. After-school programs will be suspended until students return to in-person blended learning models.
>> Second phase, ready to learn (Aug. 24-Sept. 11): Full distance learning will be implemented. Staff will report to their designated work sites for continued distance learning instruction. Special education services that cannot be provided in a distance learning format will be available in person. Supervised in-person learning labs at schools will be available for students who do not have Wi-Fi access.
>> Third phase, transi- tion to blended learning (Sept. 14): Officials will assess whether or not students can safely return to in-person blended learning models. If distance learning will continue for the remainder of the first quarter of school, an announcement will be made.
Kishimoto took a minute to address public school students: “You have been at the heart of every decision we faced. We know you are eager to see your teachers and friends again. We are excited to welcome you back and continue your education journey.”
In his letter to the ‘Iolani community Friday, Head of School Timothy Cottrell said that given the recent surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, plus challenges with testing and contact tracing, the situation is unlikely to improve enough to allow safe on-campus instruction by the school’s Aug. 24 start date.
Cottrell said the earliest date for on-campus operations would be Sept. 14.
State health officials said all but one of the 201 newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases announced Friday was from Oahu. Maui had a single new case.
State Health Director Bruce Anderson said intensive care units on Oahu are either full or getting close to it, triggering patient transfers and the opening of new units to handle new patients. Meanwhile, ICU bed use on the neighbor islands has not changed significantly, he said.
Anderson said he welcomed the measures taken to discourage large gatherings on Oahu
“Given the incubation period of COVID can be as long as 14 days, we are seeing the result of exposures a week or two ago and it will probably be at least a couple of weeks before we can expect to see the benefit of the restrictions on these activities and events on Oahu,” he said in a statement. “We all need to act now. Avoid crowded places, closed spaces and close contact. Your life and the lives of your loved ones and friends will depend on it.”
For a second day in a row, health officials announced two deaths caused by COVID-19.
Both of the latest victims were Oahu men. Officials described one as being older than 60 and having been in the hospital from an exposure to a positive household member. He died Tuesday.
The other victim died Wednesday and was in the 40- to 59-year-old age group. The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s office said he died at home alone. His family reported he had symptoms but did not seek medical care.
Both men apparently had underlying medical conditions, but the investigations into their deaths continues, officials said.
There have now been 31 COVID-19-related deaths in Hawaii since the beginning of the pandemic.
There are likely to be more, said Lt. Gov. Josh Green. On his daily social media video Friday, Green said that when calculating the state’s active cases, hospitalizations and fatality rate, it appears that Hawaii will see 22 more fatalities “soon.”