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Editorial: Safety comes first in the classroom

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When it comes to COVID-19’s impact on public schools, what a difference two months make — and yet, how little has changed in a year.

It was just two months ago that optimism was high for a wholesale return to in-person classes, after a difficult year-and-a-half of distance learning. But due to a recent resurgence of coronavirus, it’s deja vu to a year ago, with uncertainty swirling over back-to-school safety and curriculum.

Teachers head back this Wednesday and students on Aug. 3 — some 180,000 students enrolled in Hawaii’s 257 public schools and 37 charters for 2021-22. It is imperative that more clarity, not confusion, comes this week. Teachers, staffers and students — plus their affected families — need good communication from the Department of Education (DOE) on its gameplan so school, work and household schedules can get aligned.

The commitment to daily in-person classes must remain strong, buttressed by multilayered COVID-19 protocols to keep all on campus safe. Recovering from learning losses will be essential at the outset for many. Assessments at last year’s midpoint had shown that a woeful 21% of elementary schoolers — 1 in 5 — were failing English language arts; in math, 15% were failing.

Distance-learning difficulties also were evidenced by a March progress snapshot that showed at least 1 in 4 seniors being off track and in danger of not graduating. Further, it soon will be seen how effective — or not — touted summer “learning hubs” at 252 public schools were in helping students catch up.

While sticking to its return-to-campus commitment, the DOE nevertheless has to acknowledge growing concerns over COVID-19 resurging. Last Wednesday, it posted online a list of about 100 schools that will have limited distance-learning options ( Parents, though, must take the initiative to contact school principals for clarity on these programs, which de-emphasize actual teacher interaction and leave it mostly to a “caring/responsible adult” at home to handle instruction.

As for campus health and safety, new worries over triple-digit daily cases throughout last week are complicating guidance. Stakeholders are still eagerly awaiting updated school guidance after officials from the state Health and Education departments met Thursday. That would add to the Department of Health’s (DOH’s) existing mitigation strategies, which include:

>> Directing students and staffers to stay, or go, home if feeling unwell.

>> Consistent masking, hand-washing hygiene and physical distancing.

>> Designated cohorts or “ohana bubbles” to limit interactions.

>> Adjusting ventilation systems to increase outdoor or fresh air.

>> Physical barriers, important where masking and physical distancing can’t be maintained.

>> Cleaning, most important for high-touch areas and shared objects.

When it comes to masking, the American Academy of Pediatrics last week provided sage and simple guidance, recommending that everyone over age 2 wear masks in school this fall, even if fully vaccinated.

Vaccinations also will be key to keeping everyone safe, especially keiki under age 12 who are not yet eligible. Everyone who can get the shots are urged to do so, for their own health as well as those around them.

It’s been disheartening in the past week seeing COVID-19 cases spike here and nationwide — with virtually all cases hitting unvaccinated people, and about 20% of cases affecting minors.

“We need to do our part to protect the kids and build a vaccine wall around them,” DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr rightly said.

Statewide, more than 100 school-based clinics have been held since May. Such pop-up efforts must continue in full force to immunize older students, as well as their household members.

Despite the best precautions, COVID-19 cases are bound to show up on campus. And complicating matters: Much of today’s preparations are occurring amid a major leadership change, with Superintendent Christina Kishimoto ending her contract Friday and longtime Waipahu High School principal Keith Hayashi entering as interim superintendent. It will fall on Hayashi and his team — plus each campus’ community of educators, staffers, students and families — to coordinate well against COVID-19, while boosting success in the classrooms.

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