The Department of Health released updated guidance for public and private schools Monday that aligns better with the new tiered reopening plans at the county level as well as federal guidelines.
The thresholds for shifting from distance learning to in-person instruction, or a mix of the two approaches, are based on the average new daily case rates over two weeks and the positivity rate for COVID-19 testing by island. Those are the same coronavirus factors used for Honolulu and Kauai counties’ reopening strategies.
Based on the most recent data, Oahu and Hawaii island could be in “blended learning” — a combination of in-person and online instruction. The rates on the other neighbor islands were low enough to allow for full in-person instruction. Any changes in school models would be phased in over time.
Health officials stressed that what counts most is how ready each school is to use mitigation measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Those include physical distancing, enforcing mask wearing, good cleaning practices and keeping students and staff in dedicated groups to reduce contact with others.
“The core considerations for schools, the measures schools must take to prevent spread of disease, have not changed and remain the most important part of any school’s preparations to open for in-person learning and their response to COVID-19,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist. “Our guidance on what learning model area complexes should adopt is still based on disease transmission rates and the ability of schools to respond to COVID-19.”
Any shifts would be based on islandwide trends as well as individual circumstance at the schools.
“The ability to track the measures in real time allows schools to look ahead and plan more actively for learning model changes, but the idea is to base an actual change in learning model on at least two weeks of data,” Kemble said.
The color-coded threshold chart calls for full in-person learning when the seven-day average is two cases or fewer per 100,000 population and a testing positivity rate of less than 1%. At the other end of the spectrum, students are supposed to learn from home when cases reach more than 15.5 or more per 100,000 and the positivity rate exceeds 7.5%.
There are three other levels in between that allow for “blended learning” for elementary and/or secondary students, depending on the situation. Blended learning rotates students on campus to allow for greater physical distancing.
For Oahu the most recent weekly case rates were 7.5 and 7.0 per 100,000 with testing positivity rates of 3.2% and 3.4%.
Rather than assessing the number of cases per 10,000 population, as the initial guidance released last month did, the current version measures the rate per 100,000 population to make comparisons easier.
Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, sees the new metrics as an improvement.
“We appreciate the Department of Health coming out with metrics that are more aligned with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) metrics,” he said. “These are metrics we have been asking for for months, even before the school year began.”
“If we can keep our numbers low as they are right now, and now that we have a common metric, it’s going to allow students to return for in-person learning,” he said. “If things take a turn for the worst and it’s ‘learn from home,’ we want to make sure that it’s for all students.”
Rosenlee expressed concern over whether schools will fully implement mitigation strategies, such as staying physically distanced, especially at the high school level, and keeping up with necessary cleaning.
”There has to be some way to double-check and hold the Department of Education accountable,” he said.
Most public schools are in distance learning, but some students who need special services or internet connectivity are coming to campus. Many private schools already have been bringing their students back to campus.
The 38-page guidance from the Department of Health is available on its website, along with various measures, maps and trends by island and county. Also posted are printable resources such as “What to do if a person at school has COVID-19.”
For more information: health.hawaii.gov/coronavirus disease2019/school-guidance