Working in tandem, the state departments of education and health are tasked with framing procedures for tracking and reporting COVID-19 cases in public schools. It’s worrisome that four weeks after the 2020-21 school year got underway, there is still no working rapid-response contact- tracing strategy, and no state guidelines in place regarding thresholds for school closure.
Addressing the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 on Friday, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in recent cases connected to Dole Middle School, the Department of Education (DOE) quickly activated its own response team, notifying affected staff and families, and anyone who had been exposed to infected individuals was sent home to quarantine.
But response slowed to an unacceptable pace when the Department of Health (DOH) took up to several days to follow up on new case notification and initiate contact-tracing efforts. Given that every day of delay multiplies the chances of coronavirus community spread, contact tracing must be required to start within 24 hours of notification — the timeline that Kishimoto said she had hoped for.
In the summer Kishimoto asked the Health Department to create a contact tracing team dedicated to tracking cases associated with schools. That effort now appears to be underway, she said.
This move is long overdue, and officials must continue to build on protective protocols for the good of each school community.
In late August, after tallies of new COVID-19 cases repeatedly surged to red-flag levels, the DOE announced that schools would stay in a largely distance-learning model through Oct. 2. Any hope of pivoting to hybrid options that combine virtual and in-person learning hinge on effective contact tracing and other strategies that fend off infection outbreaks.
Further, in regard to reporting cases to the general public, the DOE’s current practice — a weekly case-count update that outlines only the multicampus complex in which a case occurs — is too vague. The public has a right to know, at least, what federal guidelines allow: basic case numbers, with affected schools identified. Also, in the interest of more meaningful disclosure, updates should be daily.
In mid-July, the Health Department announced the convening of a panel of experts to come up with “triggers” for school closures and learning model pivots. Kishimoto said last week that guidelines are expected to be issued this week. Here and elsewhere, such metrics aim to provide a gauge for personal risk in the classroom.
However, there’s no set consensus on what they should be. In the absence of a single national threshold, from state to state, and district to district, there’s little consistency. For example, schools might define “outbreak” in different ways. Does five students constitute an outbreak? Ten?
Due to this haze, Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) President Corey Rosenlee says Hawaii should hold steady with its current distance-learning model for at least the first half of the school year, while assessing safety for possible pivots in 2021.
Also, Rosenlee is calling for DOE to specify how many students are on each campus, and how many teachers are allowed to lead their classes from home. HSTA says that slightly more than 55% of the statewide school system’s students are potentially eligible for in-person “learning hubs” because they’re enrolled in special education or English learning programs, or fall into a “vulnerable” set because of poor internet access or other issues.
Our public school communities and the general public need and have a right to know how safe it is to be in the classroom, and which campuses are faring well amid pandemic-related challenges. Piecing together and sharing a complete picture from schools is essential to building confidence in the state’s ongoing efforts.