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Cluster of COVID-19 cases reported at Hilo charter school, scattered cases elsewhere

A Hawaiian immersion charter school in Hilo, Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo, has reported a cluster of eight cases of COVID-19 among its employees and shut down all its facilities.

On Friday, Ka ‘Umeke posted a letter on its website saying eight employees had tested positive, followed by an update Monday that there were now “seven active cases with no new confirmed cases.” The school learned of the first positive case on Aug. 17, the first day of school, and immediately closed its three campuses.

“The Department of Health has identified a COVID cluster at Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo and ongoing testing and contact tracing of potentially impacted employees is occurring,” Nohea Nahale-a, who heads the charter school, wrote Friday.

“At this time, all Ka ‘Umeke sites remain closed until further notice,” she added. “We are continuing to communicate and work closely with the Department of Health, the Hawaii Charter School Commission staff and our Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo Governing Board.”

In the 2019-20 academic year, the school had more than 200 students in preschool through 10th grade, but all the current cases are employees. A private company was hired to clean and disinfect the facilities, and everyone has been teleworking since the shutdown.

“As a small, tight knit community, this experience has reminded us how important it is to follow social distancing guidelines and remain ever vigilant even with those we have identified as being part of our ‘ohana bubble,’” Nahale-a said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education reported that another 14 positive cases were confirmed at Oahu public schools last week, with none involving transmission on campus and zero on the neighbor islands. Those figures do not include charter schools, which are overseen by the state Charter School Commission.

The Department of Education reports coronavirus cases weekly, by “complex area,” which consists of two or three high schools plus their feeder elementary and middle schools. Principals alert their own school communities of cases.

“Confirmed positive cases for the week of Aug. 15-21 include nine employees, four students and one parent,” the notice said. “All campuses were sanitized and notification went out to staff in all cases. In all but one case, due to the timing of the case that occurred before students returned, parents received notification too.”

The case count included three students in the Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani complex, as well as a parent and a student in the same household in the Pearl City-Waipahu complex. The remaining nine cases were employees at various schools in those two complexes as well as at Aiea-Moanalua-Radford, Campbell-Kapolei, Nanakuli-­Waianae and Kailua-Kalaheo.

On Monday, the Department of Education also reported that a contracted service provider who later tested positive for COVID-19 had visited Campbell High, Ewa Makai Middle and Waipahu Elementary schools last Wednesday and Thursday. The person met only with a small group in one classroom at each school. Everyone who came into contact with the individual has been notified and letters went out to all staff and families at those schools.

“We are working closely with the impacted schools and the service provider to ensure we are taking the necessary steps to protect our children and employees,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said. “The impacted areas were closed immediately and the Department’s COVID-19 Response Team is coordinating cleaning and disinfection services for this evening.”

As of today, most public schools statewide are in full distance learning, according to the department.

Anyone headed to a campus should do a wellness check first, including a temperature check and screening for symptoms, the department advised. Those with fevers of over 100 degrees should say home, as should anyone who potentially has been exposed to COVID-19.

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