Hawaii’s public schools will open for daily, in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year as community infection rates decrease and vaccinations increase.
Schools Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto sent a letter to parents Monday informing them the school year begins Aug. 3, when all schools will be fully opened and activities such as clubs, bands and athletics will resume.
Hawaii schools first closed to students in March 2020 to align with the state’s emergency orders. Eventually, Hawaii schools went to a distance learning model, which evolved as health and safety recommendations allowed for various levels of reopening.
The decision to fully return to in-person education comes as conditions have allowed for a broader community reopening. It’s a key step in allowing more parents to return to work, thus allowing more businesses to fully reopen and aid in Hawaii’s economic recovery.
The state Department of Health on Monday reported 83 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 33,834 cases. No new coronavirus-related fatalities were reported, so the statewide death toll remained at 492.
The state Department of Education began working in January to ensure staff and service providers were prioritized for getting the COVID- 19 vaccine as front-line essential workers. Its latest reopening decision aligns with the broader distribution of vaccines, which are now available to kids 12 and older, who make up about half, or 87,000, of Hawaii’s public school students.
DOE’s reopening decision also follows approximately two months of increased in-person learning opportunities at Hawaii’s elementary schools. DOE spokes- woman Nanea Kalani said that based on fourth-quarter data, nearly all schools are either doing full in-person learning or blended learning, so most students have already been back on campus for some form of in-person learning over the past two months.
“We also now have an added layer of protection with COVID vaccinations more widely available and the recent approval of the vaccine for adolescents ages 12 and older,” Kishimoto said. “All of our high schools have been paired with health care providers to offer vaccinations to interested students and families, and we are now focusing on our middle school campuses.
“Additionally the Department is finalizing plans for weekly COVID testing at select pilot schools to further contain the spread in our school communities. With these systems in place, we are optimistic we can sustain positive changes and start to resume a sense of normalcy in the fall.”
Kishimoto said more than 800 COVID cases have been reported by schools and offices since June.
Some parents may be reluctant to send their children back to in-person class. In that case, Kalani said, homeschooling is a parent-initiated educational alternative to compulsory school attendance.
“Distance learning may be an option for individual, student-focused circumstances,” she said.
Kalani said safety measures such as “directing students and staff to stay home when sick, consistent mask-wearing, and proper hand hygiene” are expected to be in place when in- person school reopens.
“Other mitigation strategies such as cohorting and physical distancing are considered secondary measures to be applied to the greatest extent possible,” Kalani said. “Schools will continue to follow state and county guidelines relating to the allowance of spectators for events.”
COVID-19 vaccinations are highly encouraged but not mandatory for students or staff, she said.
“The administrative authority for adopting or amending immunization requirements actually lies with the state Department of Health. This would include adding COVID-19 vaccines to the required immunizations for students,” Kalani said.
Corey Rosenlee, president of the 13,5000-member Hawaii State Teachers Association, said the DOE did not inform the union of its in-person school reopening plan.
However, Rosenlee said the union is supportive of policies that “follow the science,” and in general teachers have welcomed a return to in-person learning.
“Our teachers miss their students,” he said.
Rosenlee said the timing of DOE’s announcement allows for planning.
Rosenlee also said HSTA is hopeful that Gov. David Ige will sign Senate Bill 811, which would require the DOE as of July 1 to publish a weekly report on schools that have reported COVID cases.
“Even as schools are open, unless parents think it’s safe, they may not be comfortable sending their child back,” he said. “Being transparent is one way to ensure parents that you are being honest and open with them, and that’s something that we’ve been encouraging and advocating for since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Rosenlee said the union also is urging Ige to sign House Bill 613, which would use federal relief funds to give each teacher a $2,200 payment aimed at ensuring enough teachers return this fall.
“It’s a little harder to keep distant if you don’t have enough teachers,” he said. “Multiple research projects have shown that the pandemic has been very stressful on teachers. There’s a deep concern that we may lose more teachers to retirement this year.”
Kalani said that at the end of the first semester of school year 2020-21, there were 364 teacher vacancies, which calculates to roughly 2.7% of teacher positions.