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Seven COVID-19 cases reported so far at Hawaii public schools since teachers returned

Seven school employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since teachers returned to work at public schools July 29, the Department of Education announced Tuesday after being criticized by the teachers union for failing to publicize cases.

The department did not identify specific schools, instead listing cases by complex area. One was reported in the Leilehua-Mililani-­Waialua complex on July 30; three in the Campbell-­Kapolei complex last week; one in the Kaimuki-McKinley-­­Roosevelt complex Thursday; one in the Aiea-­Moanalua­-Radford complex on Saturday, and one in the Pearl City-Waipahu complex on Monday.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association held a news conference Tuesday to publicize cases it had heard about from teachers, saying it had to step up because the Department of Health and the Department of Education had failed to do so.

“Policymakers, parents and the public deserve to know important information so they can decide the vital question of whether our schools are safe for keiki to return on Monday,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said. “The Department of Education has shown that it is not transparent and the Department of Health has shown that it is not prepared, yet the state is still fixated on bringing the students back on Monday. Why?”

The union identified five campuses that it said had cases since Aug. 6, including Campbell High School, Kapolei Middle School and Moanalua High School. The union also cited another Oahu elementary school but the department later said HSTA was mistaken and no COVID-19 case had been identified there. A fifth case mentioned by the union, at Hilo Intermediate School, involved a visitor to the school who was there briefly, not an employee or student, so it is not in the department’s tally.

Public schools statewide will begin the academic year with 100% distance learning for students starting Monday for at least the first four weeks of the school year. The exceptions are schools on Molokai, which have opted for face-to-face and blended learning, and Hana High and Elementary School, which will have in-person instruction for elementary and a hybrid model for upper grades. Charter schools determine their own instructional models.

Students are invited back to campuses on Oahu starting Monday, in staggered fashion as instructed by their administrators, to connect with their teachers, get training and pick up technology devices in preparation for distance learning. But the union opposes that plan, saying it’s not safe to have students on campus. It advocates 100% distance learning statewide for the first quarter.

At a news conference later Tuesday, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the in-person sessions were offered in response to requests from families who said they needed the support.

“Families are working with their school principals and their teachers to determine how that contact is happening,” she said. “We have lots of parents who are concerned about their child not necessarily knowing all the information about what it means to do distance learning and so they are asking for the support.”

“It isn’t as if we are going to have this wave of students all showing up on one day,” Kishimoto said. ‘They are being scheduled in depending on their level of need.”

Parents also may arrange with their school administrators for a drive-by pickup of materials as needed if they are already all set to start distance learning and prefer not to have their students come on campus, she said.

Schools will offer space on campus for students who have no internet access at home. And teachers also will work on campus with those special education students for whom remote education is not appropriate.

The tally released Tuesday by the Department of Education totaled 13 COVID-19 cases on public school campuses dating back to June 26 — 11 staff members and two students. The only neighbor island case reported was one on Kauai on June 26.

Kishimoto said the policy is for schools to notify everyone who needs to know within their communities whenever a case crops up. But the Department of Education does not issue broader announcements to the public because that is the responsibility of the Department of Health and privacy laws limit public release of information.

“We do provide information immediately to constituents who are potentially impacted so that they can work with us on responding appropriately,” Kishimoto said.

“Timely notification was made to the impacted school community for each positive COVID-19 case at a HIDOE school or office,” she said. “The department followed its procedures on internal notification, communication to health officials, cleaning and sanitization of facilities, and informing impacted staff, students and/or vendors.”

“The state Department of Health is the lead agency in terms of notifying individuals who were possibly exposed,” she said. “If a case rises to a level requiring immediate, broader notification to the public, the department will respond accordingly.”

Kishimoto said she recently requested that the Department of Health allocate a team of contact tracers specifically to handle cases that crop up in public and private schools.

Last week, in response to inquiries, the Department of Education confirmed that there had been individual cases at Iliahi Elementary School and Kaala Elementary in Wahiawa. Rosenlee said the union also has received reports that some staff members were quarantined at Leilehua High and Waialae Public Charter School after July 31 due to positive COVID-19 cases.

Kishimoto said she did not have information on how many employees at public schools are currently in quarantine.

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