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Bill would mandate disclosure of COVID-19 cases at Hawaii public schools

A bill that would require the Department of Education to publish a weekly report on schools that have COVID-19 cases among students and staff will get its first hearing today in the Senate.

The department currently posts a weekly tally of such cases broken down by complex area but not by individual school. A complex area is made up of two or three high schools and their feeder lower schools.

The proposed new report would name the school, the date the COVID-19 test result was reported to the school and when the individual was last on campus. It would cover cases among students, staff members and “affiliated individuals.”

“The public has a right to know,” said state Sen. Michelle Kidani, who chairs the Education Committee and introduced the bill, SB 811. “Naming a school does not violate any students’ or teachers’ rights.”

“I think it’s only fair for parents, teachers and students to know what school is having these cases, rather than to go by complex area,” she added. “For instance, in the complex area of Mililani, Wahiawa and the North Shore, that’s a large area. Why should you keep the public guessing when you can pinpoint the school and not worry the entire complex area needlessly?”

The bill will be considered at 3 p.m. today at an Education Committee hearing that will stream on the Senate’s YouTube channel. Testimony may be submitted via capitol.hawaii.gov.

THE DEPARTMENT of Education has raised concerns about violating the privacy of children and adults as a reason for issuing its weekly COVID-19 case reports by complex area instead of school in most cases. Its current policy calls for:

>> Immediate notification to individuals who may have come in close contact with the infected person.

>> Notification to staff and the school community about the possible exposure and activities to contain the spread of infection.

>> A daily report to the state Board of Education of confirmed cases.

>> Weekly public reporting of cases by complex area.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association welcomed the proposed legislation.

“HSTA has always supported having transparency when it comes to the amount of cases at each school, rather than by complex area,” said Corey Rosenlee, union president. “That information will not only inform the community but at the same time let us know whether or not the amount of students coming on campus is having an impact on an increase in cases.”

CURRENTLY, PRINCIPALS communicate directly with close contacts, in collaboration with the Health Department, as they learn of cases. They also notify their school community, including employees and parents, and often post letters on their websites.

For example, Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School announced Saturday that it would be in distance learning for two weeks after two school employees from the same household tested positive for COVID-19. The employees were last on campus Thursday and Friday.

“Our school is taking the necessary precautions including notifying close contacts, professionally deep cleaning all impacted areas, and coordinating next steps with the Department’s COVID-19 Core Response Team,” Principal Noel Richardson wrote in a letter posted on the school website. “As an extra precaution, we have also decided to shift our school to a distance learning model from Monday, Feb. 1 through Monday, Feb. 15.”

The middle school also delayed the start of its hybrid rotation of in-person and distance learning by one month, until March 1.

The latest weekly coronavirus tally by the Department of Education on Friday showed 14 confirmed cases statewide among people who had been at school facilities: six employees, six students and two service providers or visitors. It also reported 13 more cases among students who had not been on campus for two weeks.

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