The union representing 13,500 Hawaii public school teachers asked Gov. David Ige to postpone the start of school for elementary-age students due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, but it was rebuffed.
Instead, Ige joined interim schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi and state Health Director Libby Char at a news conference Monday to say that in-person learning is critical to the academic and social success and well-being of the 175,000 students set to begin school this morning.
Char conceded that it is inevitable the schools will experience an increase in virus cases reflective of what’s happening in the community.
“The idea of getting 180,000 people together, statistically, will end up with some cases popping out of that,” Char said at a news conference at Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu.
But the benefit from in-person learning far exceeds the risk, she said, and that’s partly because the schools can operate safely with “layers upon layers of safety mitigation measures” plus the capability of quickly minimize any outbreaks.
Hayashi said all 256 schools will strictly adhere to the safety protocols and mitigation strategies recommended by state and federal health authorities. He said students will benefit overall by having access to social and emotional support resources, to food security through the school meal program and through extracurricular activities, among others.
“Right now the state is open for business with no other industry shut down. Our schools are ready to open as well, and we have shown we can do it safely,” he declared.
But Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said later Monday: “Sadly, just saying schools are safe places doesn’t make it so.
“With 25% of new cases being children, that is extremely worrisome,” Tui said during a Zoom briefing. “Our students under 12 have no way to vaccinate themselves, but we’re willing to send them to schools on buses and on playgrounds while this extremely contagious variant spreads.”
Hawaii has averaged over 300 coronavirus cases a day over the past week or so in a spike largely driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.
On Sunday, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino asked the the state Department of Education, Department of Health and Ige to postpone the return of classroom learning for a few weeks in a move to better understand the impact of the current COVID-19 surge on the county’s health care facilities.
Victorino noted there’s been an uptick in the number of children with the virus, and the neighbor islands have limited hospitals and critical care facilities.
“Our health care facilities are already being challenged by the recent surge of infections, so I believe it is wiser to err on the side of caution.”
Ige said he talked to Victorino briefly and told him that schools across the state, including those on Maui, would be opening safely today as scheduled. But he did add that he planned to talk to the mayor again to look at his specific concerns and see what he could do to allay his fears.
Char said there is no specific number of cases or level of transmission that officials will be looking for to tell them it is time to close down the campuses or alter the mode of learning.
“We’ll be watching very closely to see what kind of trends emerge,” she said. “But I don’t think there is a hard and fast number or cutoff at this point that will trigger shutting them down.”
The state’s strategy to opening schools safely, the governor said, focuses on promoting vaccinations to all eligible students and staff, urging parents to keep students home when they are sick, adhering to proper masking protocols and encouraging frequent hand-washing.
Ige urged everyone, not just students, to follow the same guidelines. He added that he was sending a letter to CEOs asking them to be supportive of parents whose child is sick.
“I’m encouraging everyone all across the state of Hawaii to do your part,” he said. “Take personal action to help us return our students to in-person learning, because it allows us to move forward as a community.”
Elsewhere on campus, sixth grade English teacher Corrie Izumoto was busy preparing her classroom.
“I can’t wait. I’m so excited to have the kids back on campus,” she said.
Izumoto said she’s vaccinated and that she isn’t uneasy at all about facing a room full of kids with the pandemic spiking.
“I feel that we’re more than prepared. We’ve been given our guidelines. We know what we’re supposed to do. And vaccinations are in the forefront of everything,” she said. “As long as their face masks are on and we try to keep the social distancing and the hand-washing and everything, I feel really confident and comfortable.”
But Tui said some union members have reported improper mask enforcement during faculty meetings in the past few days, and there are already suspected COVID-19 transmissions as a result.
Tui also said some parents are reporting getting shut out of the distance-learning option for their child because of the minimal number of offerings.
With so much uncertainty in regard to the delta variant, he said he asked the governor to delay the start of the school year for vulnerable elementary students until case numbers came down. The request was rejected.
“So while our teachers have no choice but to return to work, parents, if you don’t feel school is safe for your children, you are free to exercise your right to keep your children home until you feel it is safe,” Tui said.