State schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said Friday that Dole Middle School in Kalihi responded quickly and appropriately to recent COVID-19 cases but that contact tracing by the Health Department was too slow.
She spoke at a meeting of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, where senators pressed for details on how the situation is being handled and asked whether the campus should be shut down.
“I know you, as well as all of us, want to ensure the safety of our students, our teachers, our employees, and if there is still COVID cases on that campus and they are not being notified properly, we are in deep kim chee,” Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waikele-Kunia) told the superintendent.
“This would be the opportune time to close down the campus to put people on telework if that is the case,” she added. “I’m certainly not assured, and I’m not even on the campus. So I can imagine how the teachers are feeling.”
Kishimoto said the Department of Education had consulted with health officials that morning to get specific guidance for the campus, which would be implemented promptly.
Two Dole employees and one student recently tested positive for COVID-19, and two other employees are potential cases, the DOE reported Monday. On Wednesday a woman who worked in the school office died after being in home quarantine, but the cause of her death has not been released.
When each positive case surfaced, the DOE’s COVID- 19 response team was activated, staff and families were notified and anyone exposed to the infected individuals was sent home to quarantine, according to the department. Affected areas on campus were cleaned and disinfected.
“The protocols were all followed,” Kishimoto said. “The principal did a great job.”
Although the Health Department was also notified immediately, its contact tracers did not follow up for “several days,” the superintendent said.
“We don’t have what we hoped we could have, which was within 24 hours we need a response from DOH,” Kishimoto said. “We don’t have a consistent follow-up or guarantee of follow-up.”
She expressed hope that is changing with the new Health Department team, whom education officials met with Friday morning at her request. In the summer Kishimoto asked the Health Department to create a contact tracing team dedicated to tracking cases associated with schools, but it didn’t happen. Now that appears to be underway, she said.
“That’s what I hope we can have in place immediately. It’s necessary,” Kishi- moto said.
“It is not just about Dole,” she added. “The schools are reflecting what’s happening in the community. We have Kalihi, we have Waipahu and we have Nanakuli areas that are showing larger spikes in the community.”
Schools with positive coronavirus cases follow protocols that are in the Health and Safety Handbook that is part of the DOE’s Return to Learn School Reopening Plan, which is posted on its website at hawaiipublicschools.org. That handbook was most recently updated Sept. 4.
“We do not shut down our schools automatically because there is a positive case,” Kishimoto told senators. “There are levels of risk assessment that are done.”
What areas of the school might need to closed for cleaning and disinfecting depends, for example, on whether the employee, visitor or student was on campus and for what amount of time, and with whom that person interacted, she said.
In the confirmed Dole cases, the student had not been on campus since Aug. 17, but tested positive earlier this month. The two employees were last on campus Aug. 26 and 28 and had no contact with students and only minimal contact with staff, according to the department.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moanalua- Halawa) asked about a previous pandemic plan that called for closing campuses for 21 days after a positive case. Kishimoto said that was an old plan created for pandemics in general and is being overhauled. The department relies on the Health and Safety Handbook created specifically for COVID-19.
Kishimoto also said Health Department officials assured her the metrics or “triggers” the department is developing to determine when schools should open or close would come out next week.
The DOE’s weekly tally issued Friday reported 14 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed from Sept. 5 to Friday at public school campuses, excluding charter schools. That brings the total to 89 cases since June 26 associated with DOE schools.
The chart shows cases by complex area and whether they were employees, students or visitors. No cases were reported this week for the Aiea-Moanalua-Radford, Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua and Nanakuli-Waianae complexes, or on Kauai or Maui. The tally includes only confirmed and documented cases, so there is sometimes a lag.
The department’s notification process is as follows: immediate alerts to anyone who may have come in contact with an infected person; notification to staff and the school community about possible exposure and activities to contain the spread; a daily report to the Board of Education; and a weekly public report of cases by complex area.