The new public school year in Hawaii starts Tuesday for an estimated 175,000 students amid growing concern about the escalating coronavirus pandemic.
The vast majority will be showing up to campus for in-person, face-to-face learning in a long-planned move to bring stability to Hawaii children, along with a better brand of instruction, after more than a year of disruption and uncertainty.
Supported by scientific research, federal mandates, guidance by state health officials and its own frustrating experience during the opening phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Department of Education has been planning for months to minimize the remote and hybrid learning models employed much of last year in favor of full, in-classroom learning.
Former schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, whose last day was Friday, and her lieutenants have been saying for months that the overriding goal of the coming year is to tackle the learning loss that plagued Hawaii’s students last year and avoid the social and emotional issues caused by isolation.
But while the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be waning at the start of the summer, that changed in the last several weeks with the triple-digit emergence of the highly transmissible and virulent delta variant, which has swept across the U.S.
On Friday, the state Department of Health reported 622 new cases, shattering all previous records. What’s more, a quarter of the cases were identified as children. Saturday’s new case count was 485, second-highest since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s getting scary out there,” said Christine Russo, a ninth-grade science teacher at Campbell High School in Ewa Beach. “I was feeling really great earlier in the summer. The case numbers were low, people were getting vaccinated and it seemed like we were headed on the right path. But now it’s time for school, people will be congregating and that’s definitely scary.”
Russo is vaccinated but pregnant with twins, which puts her in a high-risk category.
While she’s concerned about her own safety and the lack of proper distancing possible with full classes at the state’s largest high school, she’s more worried about her 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, who will be starting first grade at Ewa Elementary School.
After Gianna had remote learning all last year, she is eager to begin her schooling on campus, according to her mother. “I was looking forward to giving her that experience,” Russo said.
The problem, she said, is that Gianna is not vaccinated and neither are any of her classmates because they are under age 12 and ineligible for inoculation.
Russo said she’s comforted by the fact that students at Ewa will be wearing masks both indoors and out, but she’s uneasy about the lunch period, when the masks come off as kids sit relatively close to one another.
“I’ve told her just eat, that it’s not social time,” she said.
SCHOOLS across the state are working to implement health-recommended protocols and taking extra measures in an effort to make their campuses safer for the new year.
Among other things, they’re keeping desks 3 feet apart where possible, creating student “bubbles” to minimize transmission, opening doors and windows to increase ventilation and expanding classrooms and cafeterias into outdoor spaces.
At Liholiho Elementary School in Kaimuki, parents are being asked to drop off students in different zones to provide extra separation, and students will get their temperatures checked before entering the campus.
At Farrington High School, ultraviolet-light air purification units have been installed in the band room and locker rooms. Similar units are now found in the Kalani High School band room, while Waipahu Elementary School acquired mobile units from the same Hawaii-based company, ABC Corp., to accommodate indoor meetings in its cafeteria, library and elsewhere.
Noelani Elementary School in Manoa held a virtual town hall Wednesday to give the parents the rundown on what’s expected this year.
“As the number of COVID cases has gone up recently and COVID has not gone away, I can totally understand people’s concerns and anxieties as we enter into a new school year,” Principal Bryan Gusman told parents.
During the virtual meeting, Gusman warned parents to keep their children home if they show any signs of illness, such as fever, chills and coughing.
“If they come to school with any of those symptoms, we’re going to send them home anyway,” he said. “If you can take care of that at home, it may cause less of a headache in the long run.”
Kimberly Kobayashi said the growing COVID-19 case counts are making her anxious about the new school year for her 6-year-old, who is set to start first grade at Kalanianole Elementary and Intermediate School in Papaikou near Hilo.
“The numbers have escalated so quickly,” she said.
Kobayashi, a program manager for a Hawaii island nonprofit, said she’s nervous about sending her daughter to the campus because she has heard little about what to expect regarding health and safety protocols. She said she didn’t know that school supplies will be provided, as well as free breakfast and lunch. Her daughter, Daniela, will only have to bring a backpack, water bottle and face masks.
Kobayashi said she found a support system of mothers in her neighborhood when the school first shut down in 2020. But now she’s fearful the delta variant will push virus case counts to the point where schools will have to close again.
“It was tough the first time, but we’re tired. We just want to have something, a routine we can rely on,” she said.
THE DOE is offering a distance-learning option at some schools across the state, but most schools will not. Earlier DOE surveys of parents found there was little demand for it, but that was before the emergence of the delta variant.
A statewide program is also being offered to those whose school or area complex doesn’t have remote learning. However, only a limited number of slots are available — as few as 30 openings per grade level, and even fewer for elementary school students, from about 21 to 27, according to a memo sent last week to principals and complex superintendents.
Amanda Kaahanui is upset more options are not being offered. Because of the limited choices, her 17-year-old son Ikaika will brave the campus of Kalaheo High School even though he suffers from a lung disease that puts him in a high-risk category.
Ikaika, who is vaccinated, actually excelled at distance learning last year. But now Kalaheo isn’t offering that option, and the other options are either not ideal or don’t work for the senior.
“I can’t home school him. I would have to quit my job,” said Kaahanui, a health educator.
Kaahanui said she is not alone; she’s talked with others who have been thwarted in their attempt to find a distance-learning option, including one Leeward Oahu parent who tried unsuccessfully to transfer her child to three other schools.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “COVID is not done, and delta is a different animal. But they’re acting like it’s not.”
Gov. David Ige, Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char and interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi announced Friday that they will hold a joint news conference Monday afternoon at Kawananakoa Middle School to discuss back-to-school safety, according to a news release from the governor’s office.