When Hawaii public schools’ 2020-21 year wrapped up in late May, a mere 5% of high school students were back on campus full-time — some 14 months after campuses had been abruptly shuttered, and distance-learning installed as a necessary stopgap for a vast majority of students.
Throughout that unprecedented school year, during which the state Department of Education (DOE) continuously grappled with pandemic-related challenges, the full-time in-person learning rates inched higher at all levels, topping out in the fourth-quarter in middle and elementary schools at 8% and 36%, respectively.
Now, given ample evidence that the virtual setup contributed to higher levels of failing grades and heightened risks for students disconnecting or dropping out, the DOE’s commitment to launch the 2021-22 year this week with largely in-person classes comes as welcome relief — despite ongoing anxiety tied to the highly contagious delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics are in the lineup of experts supporting the reopening of schools as a priority. In Hawaii and in many school districts across the country, vaccines, along with multiple layers of safety protections, are serving as primary defenses against COVID-19 — clearing the way for tenable in-person instruction this fall.
In addition to mask-wearing, physical-distancing and hand-washing, school systems are dividing students into smaller groups, improving ventilation flow, and implementing symptom-screening and testing — as well as having strategies for quickly containing community spread in cases of infection.
During a press conference Monday, Keith Hayashi, Hawaii’s new interim schools superintendent, said campuses are ready to open, thanks to protocols established during the last school year and over the summer. Indeed, compared to other congregant settings, schools have been spared large outbreaks due in part to their controlled environments, which often have stricter safety measures than those in the surrounding community.
Also on Monday, Gov. David Ige rebuffed, reasonably, an 11th-hour bid by the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) to “at a minimum, start our elementary schools in full distance mode” since children under age 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, account for about one-quarter of new COVID-19 cases here.
While much remains unknown about the delta variant, including whether it affects children more seriously than earlier forms of the virus, with strict protocols in place, postponing the start of in-person schooling appears to pose the bigger risk — of additional learning loss, cases of worsening mental health and widening educational disparities.
Assessments at the end of the last school year show that a concerning 18% of elementary schoolers were failing English language arts; in math, 16% were failing. What’s more, nearly one-third of K-12 students categorized as vulnerable were ranked at high risk for chronic absenteeism.
Moving forward, HSTA, which represents 13,500 teachers, should redouble efforts to promote vaccination, as shots in arms serve as the strongest shield protecting our schoolchildren.
The DOE, meanwhile, in addition to enforcing its many layers of mitigation, must swiftly provide answers for some lingering questions, such as whether students and staff participating in extracurricular activities, ranging from school sports teams to music and arts productions, must be vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
Further, the Education Department must now stress transparency in complying with a requirement to disclose which schools have COVID-19 cases. The newly enacted state law rightly places communitywide public health concerns over assertions of school-specific privacy needs.