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Hawaii’s acting state epidemiologist calls for reopening public schools

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Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, says Hawaii’s public schools should resume in-person classes as soon as possible because children can come back safely and are missing out on too much.

“As we have learned more about COVID-19 and schools, we have also learned that schools are not, as initially anticipated, amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission,” Kemble wrote in a letter Friday to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and the Hawaii Department of Education. “Rather schools are one of the safest environments for children when it comes to COVID-19.”

Kemble highlighted the multiple benefits children receive attending school in person, including education, health, social, emotional and physical support. And she said universal mask use, hygiene and keeping kids in cohorts can minimize the transmission risk of coronavirus — even when 6-foot distancing is not always possible.

“Schools that have implemented mitigation measures are able to control COVID-19 transmission better than many community settings, where children may interact in less structured ways or attend gatherings with their families,” she wrote.

Schatz has been pressing for public schools to reopen for full-time, in-person instruction, citing the latest guidance and evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the state’s private schools brought students back to campus in the fall at least for blended learning, which alternates days on campus.

“Throughout this pandemic, everybody has been correctly calling for decision-makers to rely on the science,” Schatz said in an interview late Friday. “And now the state’s epidemiologist is saying that it is better for public health to open up the schools, so everyone is going to try their very best to move in that direction.”

Hawaii’s public schools have been gradually returning some students to campus in the past couple of months, starting with those in greatest need.

While many campuses offer blended learning, others remain in distance learning even for families who want their kids back on campus. Decisions on instructional models are made at the school level, and the department could not say how many campuses are still in distance learning.

Altogether, 26% of public students statewide have opted for online learning from home this year by parent choice, and they may continue in that mode regardless of broader reopening plans.

Elementary schools had the most students attending daily, at 12% in December, compared to just 5% of middle schoolers and 2% of high school students.

Schatz said he is hopeful that far more students will be back in school by the fourth quarter, which starts March 22 after a weeklong spring break. He spoke after what he called an “extraordinarily constructive and encouraging meeting” with the superintendent, lieutenant governor and union representatives on Friday.

“I can report that everybody is working very closely together in good faith to try to salvage what we can of this academic year,” Schatz said.

Case counts have been dropping in Hawaii, and Honolulu relaxed pandemic restrictions and moved into Tier 3 on Thursday, allowing restaurants to operate at full capacity (with distancing) and public gatherings of up to 10 people.

The state’s metrics for school reopening currently call for in-person or blended learning on every island.

The CDC has found that even where there are high community case counts, the coronavirus does not spread easily in schools where safety precautions are in place. It says vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening.

Many school staff in Hawaii have been vaccinated, as educators have been a priority group since January. A Hawaii State Teachers Association survey released Feb. 12 found that 52% of members had received one or two doses of coronavirus vaccines and 16% had pending appointments, with another 4% in the pipeline for appointments.

Less than 2% said they do not want to ever get the coronavirus vaccine. More than 11,000 of the union’s 13,500 members responded to the survey.

A major hurdle to bringing more students back, especially at the high school level, has been the 6-foot physical distancing guideline. Kemble said there is some flexibility on that, so long as other measures are taken.

“We understand that not every school can accomplish six-foot distancing at all times while bringing classrooms back to full capacity,” she wrote. “We encourage those schools to implement all OTHER mitigation measures to the full extent, to provide a layered mitigation approach that will still maximize safety.”

Those measures start with consistent masking indoors for students and staff at all times, as well as good hygiene. Mask breaks may be taken only outdoors and more than 6 feet from others. Students and staff should interact only within their cohorts, as much as possible, and with cohorts as small as feasible.

Kemble noted that shifting to in-person learning will be harder for high schools, with their larger populations and class sizes. She advised starting with elementary schools since in-person instruction is especially important for younger children and those with special needs.

In her own statement Friday, Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the department is exploring the “viability of safely opening all, most or some of our elementary schools for daily in-person instruction during the fourth quarter.”

In materials posted online with the agenda for the Board of Education’s meeting Thursday, the department said, “the goal is for all elementary school students to return to campus daily” and for secondary schools to bring more of their students back to campus.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association said Thursday that it supports efforts to safely bring students back to school with updated clear direction and protocols. The union represents principals, educational assistants, clerical staff, health aides, athletic directors and cafeteria managers, among others.

“Encouraging data on vaccinations and declining positivity rates supports efforts to have more students physically present in schools,” the HGEA wrote in a message to members. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research and data have emerged to guide the safe reopening.”

It noted that Kemble had told principals that “layered mitigation strategies including wearing masks and good hygiene have proven successful in private schools and other industries such as the health care field where social distancing is not possible.”

“The longer we keep children out of classrooms the farther many will fall behind,” HGEA concluded.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has been one of the strongest voices in the debate over how and when to reopen schools, “is committed to making sure more students can return to face-to-face learning at our schools safely,” President Corey Rosenlee said Friday, declining to comment further until after hearing from the union’s teacher leaders.

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