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Education and union leaders agree to bring more kids back to Hawaii public schools

Education, health and union leaders announced Monday they have signed off on guidelines to bring more students back to campus at Hawaii’s public schools, especially at the elementary level.

“Our goal collectively is to have over 50% of our elementary students in-person during Quarter 4, with all students who want to be in-person to be minimally coming on campus on a rotating basis,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said this afternoon.

The number of students at school will ramp up over the next several weeks after classes resume Monday following spring break. How many students attend in-person will vary from campus to campus, depending on conditions at the school, students’ needs and parent preferences.

At the end of the second quarter in December, 12% of elementary students were attending school on campus full time, but the number has risen since then.

“Every quarter we have been bringing more students back, but we have not reached that 50% level,” Kishimoto said. “The CDC visited several of our schools and verified that we have really good mitigation strategies.”

“The next school year is where we are hoping to have everyone back on campus who wants to be on campus,” she added.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said the union had consulted with officials from the Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and concluded that the time was right and the science supports a safe return.

“The vast majority of our teachers will have been vaccinated and gone through the entire protocol,” he said. “We have seen low cases (of coronavirus), in fact, Hawaii has per capita one of the lowest rates in the entire country.”

“With this agreement we do now believe that it’s safe for more of our students to return,” Rosenlee said, adding that health officials told him they have not seen outbreaks in schools.

The agreement between the department and the teachers’ union tracks the latest guidance from federal and state officials and will continue to be updated.

It calls for consistent masking, hand hygiene and keeping anyone who is sick off campus. Physical distancing remains “ideally at least six feet” but classrooms can be configured at less, so long as everyone is masked and other safety measures are in place.

“Where physical distancing cannot be achieved, ensure open-air ventilation, utilize air filtering systems and keep students within established cohorts,” the agreement said.

Mask breaks are to be taken only outdoors or in a well ventilated area, with people spaced more than six feet apart. The agreement also calls for adjusting ventilation to introduce more fresh air, physical barriers and cleaning.

Kishimoto said the other two unions, the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers, are “also in full agreement and support of this greater reopening.”

Parents still have the option to continue distance learning in the fourth quarter, but it’s not clear how many will choose to bring their kids back so late in the school year.

“I’m not so sure that there’s going to be this mad rush,” Rosenlee said.

Stacie Kunihisa, principal of Kanoelani Elementary School in Waipahu, said her school is in hybrid mode with roughly half of its 760 students attending in person, which she hopes to raise to 75% by the end of the year.

“Each school is designed different, every principal is working literally around the clock to figure this out for their communities,” Kunihisa said. “We need that flexibility for schools to move at a different pace depending on what parents expect and would like to see, what students can do comfortably through the day.”

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