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Health Department revising school guidance with COVID-19 on the rise in Hawaii

The state Department of Health is revising its public school guidance for on-campus learning as COVID-19 is surging again and schools are set to open in less than two weeks.

DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr said Tuesday the department is expected to recommend updated strategies to help the schools cope with the ongoing health crisis.

Baehr said the strategies will align with updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention school guidance released earlier in the month and take into account best practices and lessons learned during the previous school year.

Officials are “racing against the clock” to complete the recommendations, he said, as the first day of public school is Aug. 3.

Health officials last gave the state Department of Education guidance for reopening schools in May. Strategies in a 43-page report included directing staff and students to stay home when sick, improving ventilation, maintaining designated cohorts and observing consistent masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing.

The revision comes as Hawaii is experiencing a resurgence in coronavirus cases bolstered by the highly transmissible delta variant, which is spreading rapidly in areas across the country and around the islands.

Hawaii saw its sixth consecutive day of triple-digit cases Tuesday, most of them blamed on the delta variant, a form of the virus that has taken off especially among those who are not vaccinated.

More concerning for the schools is that a growing number young people, 18 years and younger, seem to be coming down with the disease, and there are reports of more children than ever being hospitalized for COVID-19.

Over the past week people 18 years old and younger made up about 20% of Hawaii’s virus cases, Baehr said, while in April they accounted for only 17%. Since the pandemic began last year, youngsters 17 and younger have accounted for 13% of COVID-19 cases, according to DOH statistics.

Dr. Janet Berreman, a pediatrician and Kauai District health officer, reported Monday that there’s a growing number of unvaccinated adults infecting children under age 12, who are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

“With the return to school just around the corner, it’s very important that the people who come into contact with children get themselves vaccinated,” Baehr said. “We need to do our part to protect the kids and build a vaccine wall around them.”

On Monday the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that everyone over the age of 2 wear masks in school this fall, even if fully vaccinated.

The CDC is also recommending wearing masks in school, though not outdoors.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the public schools are moving ahead with reopening plans for in-person learning as education officials await the updated health and safety guidance.

Meanwhile, a virtual meeting is scheduled this week to allow health officials to address school leaders and DOE administrators about the upcoming year.

“It’s important to note that Hawaii public schools have proven to be safe spaces throughout the pandemic,” Kalani said. “Despite more than 1,000 cases reported by schools and offices since June 2020, consistent adherence to safety protocols has meant that there has been very limited transmission of the virus at DOE facilities.”

The department reported seven virus cases linked to schools across the state, but four of them had no facility impact.

Kalani said there’s also an added layer of protection with COVID-19 vaccinations more widely available, including for adolescents ages 12 and older.

Since May the department has hosted more than 100 school-based clinics statewide to make vaccinations available to students and families ahead of the new school year.

In addition, 18 DOE schools over the summer are participating in a CVS pilot COVID-19 testing program. Of the 18, 14 of the schools are doing weekly in-school testing, and four schools are providing vouchers for testing at CVS.

The department today is expected to reveal its plans to give students across the state distance-learning options in light of the pandemic concerns.

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