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Masks in Hawaii schools will likely still be required despite new federal guidance

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    Osa Tui Jr., new Hawaii teachers' union leader, joins Spotlight Hawaii.

                                Aikahi Elementary School Principal Keoki Fraser greets sixth graders as they return from first recess at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua on March 22.


    Aikahi Elementary School Principal Keoki Fraser greets sixth graders as they return from first recess at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua on March 22.

Hawaii’s teachers and students who are vaccinated against the coronavirus will likely still have to wear masks when they return to campuses in three weeks for the start of the new school year, despite new federal guidance that drops the mask-wearing recommendations for people who are vaccinated.

The guidance released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges schools to fully reopen in the fall to in-person instruction, as Hawaii is already set to do, acknowledging the toll that online learning has taken on many students this past school year. The agency also recommends that unvaccinated staff and students continue to wear masks, that at least 3 feet of physical distance be maintained between students in the classroom and that schools adopt other mitigation strategies such as periodic screening for the coronavirus, increased ventilation and frequent hand-washing.

Hawaii’s public schools already have adopted much of that advice, but the changes in CDC guidance on mask- wearing has stirred the most attention.

While state health and school officials say they still need to review the federal guidance before issuing their own recommendations, the state has taken a conservative approach throughout the pandemic, with Gov. David Ige at times rejecting the CDC’s more lenient advice when it comes to COVID-19 safety precautions.

For instance, in May the CDC said that people who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings, advice that at the time didn’t apply to schools. But Ige rejected that guidance. Hawaii is now the only state in the country that still has an indoor mask mandate, according to The New York Times, which has been tracking states’ reopening plans. Instead, Ige said 70% of the state’s population must be fully vaccinated before he drops COVID safety restrictions, including the requirement to wear masks indoors.

That could take another two months, or even longer if the state’s pace of vaccination continues to drop. Currently, 58% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Part of the challenge in dropping mask requirements in schools is that children under 12 still aren’t eligible for the vaccine. While children are at a much lower risk of getting severely ill from COVID than adults, health officials say they still worry about outbreaks, and schools throughout the country have been adopting a wide range of policies.

Children 12 and older have been able to get vaccinated since mid-May. So far, 52% of children ages 12 to 17 in Hawaii have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state data.

Acting state Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said mask-wearing likely will continue to be required for everyone on school campuses while indoors, with masks required outdoors only when students and staff are in prolonged close contact or crowded settings.

“There are a lot of considerations when you think about how you would implement person-specific masking guidance, and I think that’s a real challenge for schools to say you are going to wear a mask and you aren’t,” Kemble said.

She said individual schools may be able to loosen the mask-wearing requirements if they come up with a way to verify who is and isn’t vaccinated.

“But I think from a practical standpoint, we are looking at masking indoors and masking outdoors in selected situations,” she said.

The issue of mask-wearing in schools has been a flashpoint of debate throughout the country, including in Hawaii, with parents expressing strong feelings on the topic.

State schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii last month that the decision about mask-wearing isn’t as straightforward as it would seem. “We have just as many parents who want no mask as we have parents who want a mask,” she said.

“We know that that is a very difficult and challenging situation to be able to hear well, to be able to speak clearly, to be able to see facial expressions, that this is all part of the social part of education that is important as well,” Kishimoto said, adding that mask mandates would be dropped as quickly as possible so long as it’s safe.

The teachers union is also opposed to dropping mask-wearing requirements in schools at this time. Osa Tui, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said on Spotlight Hawaii after the new CDC guidance was announced Friday that some kids could be bullied if they still have to wear masks because they aren’t eligible for the vaccine or their parents won’t allow them to be vaccinated.

It’s also not clear how many of Hawaii’s teachers have been vaccinated. Teachers were prioritized in the state’s rollout of the vaccine at the beginning of the year, and Tui said that a poll in February showed that 70% of its members had started the vaccination process or intended to get vaccinated. But he said the union didn’t have a current figure on how many teachers are now inoculated.

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