Excitement pierced the air at Ewa Makai Middle School early Tuesday morning as the sixth grade class, all 450 of them, gathered in the school’s open-air amphitheater.
Larisa Gadach, sixth grade vice principal, was on the mic, whipping up the crowd.
“So remember the most important thing: Always keep your masks on,” she told the youngsters. “Always wash your hands; make sure they are clean. And always remember about social distancing. If you remember those things, this year is going to be awesome, that I can promise you.”
Welcome to the first day of school at Ewa Makai, where opening orientation is now more than just being drilled about class schedules and school rules, but learning how to fend off the festering coronavirus pandemic.
Ewa Makai, a relatively new and spacious school amid the suburban sprawl of the Ewa plain, is one of 257 Hawaii public schools that launched the 2021-2022 school year Tuesday.
All of them — expected to serve 163,000 students — are girding against the virus with a variety of safety measures and protocols devised by state and federal health authorities.
Principal Kim Sanders insisted her school is ready as a safe learning environment for her student body of 1,270.
In addition to strict enforcement of protocols, she said, the Ewa Makai campus this year will feature an air conditioning system with upgraded ultraviolet lighting and air purifiers in every classroom.
Among other things, students will be directed to enter and exit each classroom from an exterior doorway, when possible, and eating will occur not in the cafeteria, but in outside areas. A larger custodial staff will also be cleaning classrooms more often.
“We feel like it’s going to be a good year,” Sanders said. “We’re hopeful it will be a fantastic year for our students.”
Sean Tajima, who oversees 18 schools as Campbell-Kapolei Complex Area superintendent, said he’s confident about the safety procedures.
Tajima urged the whole community to get vaccinated, to wear masks, to practice proper hand hygiene and to stay home when feeling sick.
“We know that nobody is trying to get COVID or trying to bring it on campus. But when they do, we have our safety procedures in place. Everybody knows what to do,” he said.
If a case is discovered on campus, he said, the first thing a school does is send that individual home to prevent any spread. Close contacts will be sent home as well to quarantine. The state Health Department will be notified, and parents and staff will be informed that there was a case on campus.
Maddie Rice, a seventh grade science teacher who was welcoming students Tuesday while proudly decked out in Ewa Makai Tiger colors, said she’s looking forward to the new year in spite of the pandemic.
“We’re lucky to be at a school where the administration is taking it seriously and they’re looking out for us and the students as well,” Rice said.
“We’re also lucky to have a big campus that has plenty of outdoor areas for us to go out, and our principal is really flexible about letting us take the kids outside. So I’m feeling good about it.”
Beyond the virus, Rice said she will be even more excited when the seventh and eighth graders report to campus today.
“It wasn’t the same not having the kids on campus last year,” she said. “And it kind of got even more sad once we were on campus (conducting remote classes) and the kids weren’t.”
“Seeing the sixth graders today — it’s just great to be around them. And we’re excited,” the teacher said. “We’re up for the challenge of being able to keep them apart but also keeping them together as a community.”
Elsewhere, there were no major problems that plagued the statewide school system Tuesday, although Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School delayed the start of classes until today due to impacts linked to the Waimea-area brush fire.
Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said members reported that some schools opted to cancel large assemblies in their gymnasiums, but others did not, meaning hundreds of students sat shoulder-to-shoulder in events on different islands.
And over the last week, before students returned to campus, administrators held large faculty and staff gatherings indoors over the union’s objections, he said, while other schools unnecessarily put faculty on buses for off-campus activities.
“Now we hear that some positive cases are already being reported at schools resulting from these large gatherings. For example, there have been cases reported among staff at three East Hawaii schools, resulting in educators being quarantined and directed to get tested for COVID-19. That means those school staff members could not be on campus for students’ return, and the schools had to bring in substitutes to cover for them,” Tui said.
DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said only one recent case has been reported at an East Hawaii school. That was at Keaukaha Elementary School on July 28, the day teachers reported to work to begin preparing for the year.