When the leadership team at Parker School in Waimea held its school year planning retreat July 20, they left with hope that the coming year would resemble something closer to normal following last year’s pandemic-hobbled school year.
But then coronavirus infections started taking off in Hawaii, driven by the highly contagious delta variant and spiking at levels never seen in the islands.
“By the end of the week, there was a pivot to serious conversations about a vaccination mandate,” said Stephen Dunn, head of school.
On Aug. 3, Parker School announced that all employees and eligible students must be vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 1. In addition, Parker said it would test all students and employees for COVID-19 prior to the start of the school year and provide weekly testing while infection rates remain high on Hawaii island.
Parker, an independent, coeducational day school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, is part of a growing number of private schools in Hawaii mandating vaccines for students, faculty and staff members.
The move comes amid a national trend of employer mandates, both public and private, as COVID-19 vaccination rates plateaued and the virulent delta variant triggered a new wave of infections.
In Hawaii a number of banks, hospitals and other major companies have announced employee vaccine mandates, and Gov. David Ige announced Aug. 5 that all state and county workers would need to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing at their own expense.
While that includes teachers and staff members at Hawaii’s 257 public schools, the state’s 163,000 or so students are not currently required to be inoculated unless they are involved in high school athletics.
Like their public school counterparts, Hawaii’s private schools have worked hard to implement extra pandemic protocols that include requirements for face-masking, proper hand hygiene, staying home when sick and social- distancing where possible.
Among the private schools requiring a vaccine is ‘Iolani School, where all eligible students, faculty and staff must be vaccinated or ask for a health or religious exemption.
‘Iolani spokeswoman Michelle Hee said the faculty and staff already have a 99% vaccination rate, while eligible students in the Upper School (grades 7-12) are at 95%. The school isn’t requiring Lower School (grades K-6) students to get vaccinated, as most would be ineligible for a shot.
Head of School Timothy Cottrell said faculty and students returned in September to nearly normal on-campus operations and over the course of the year had zero cases of on-campus transmission. He credited an extensive number of COVID-19 protocols and procedures.
“Moving into this year, vaccination and testing are additional tools in our tool kit that will allow us to continue operating in a nearly normal and safe way,” Cottrell said in a statement. “We remain committed to returning to campus with full academics for all grades and implementing strict safety protocols and PPE (personal protective equipment) as needed to keep all students safe.”
At Punahou all eligible students and employees are required to either be vaccinated or to test on a weekly basis.
“We have also implemented a vaccine requirement for all students participating in interscholastic athletics, with the exception of medical and religious exemptions. Today, more than 97% of our regular K-12 faculty are vaccinated and more than 90% of eligible students are vaccinated. We expect this number to continue to rise,” the school said in a statement.
At Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei, faculty, staff and administrators are being required to receive a COVID- 19 vaccination or undergo weekly testing, according to the school’s newly released health and safety plan. As for students, the school “strongly recommends” they receive a vaccination if and when they become eligible.
Not every school has a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Among them is Mid-Pacific Institute, which started classes Aug. 9.
School spokesman Kevin Whitton said the faculty at Mid-Pacific has a 97% vaccination rate. “Mid-Pacific did not need to mandate vaccinations because of their incredibly high vaccination rate,” he said.
There are no vaccination mandates for students, either, he said, although the school is surveying them to get a better idea how many are already vaccinated.
As far as COVID-19 protocols, Mid-Pacific follows the state Department of Health guidelines, as well as the Interscholastic League of Honolulu guidelines for sports.
At Kamehameha Schools all campuses and preschools have returned to full in-person instruction after nearly 1-1/2 years.
But there is no vaccination mandate. The school issued the following statement:
“After nearly 1-1/2 years, our campuses and preschools returned to full in-person instruction to enable haumana (students) to receive the learning experiences they deserve in a safe environment. While we continue to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations we also respect personal health choices and will continue to provide a weekly testing alternative for those who are not registering with us as vaccinated. We’re also continuing daily wellness checks, and indoor and outdoor masking, along with other precautions.”
There also is no such mandate at Saint Louis School.
Principal Devin Oshiro said the all-boys school is following the health guidelines issued by Hawaii Catholic Schools and the state Department of Health. The faculty is already 95% vaccinated, he said, while the school is still trying to determine the vaccine rate for its student body of nearly 900.
Oshiro said last year the elementary school held 165 days of in-person instruction without problem, and there was a strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols, prompting only a handful of students to sign up for online instruction this year.
For this year the school has installed air purifiers in each classroom and UV lights in weight rooms, locker rooms and restrooms.
“The biggest thing is educating our families to keep their sons home when they are sick,” Oshiro said.
When Parker announced its decision to establish a vaccine mandate, it was largely welcomed by a school community with an estimated 85% vaccination rate, said Dunn, the school’s top administrator since 2019.
But some parents did get a bit testy, he said. Some were even protesting with signs outside of the school Aug. 7.
“It’s a hard decision to make for families who are trying to do the right thing for their children,” he said.
But Dunn said he is absolutely certain the school is doing the right thing.
Dunn said he’s seen a forecasting model that shows cases continuing to rise with little relief until the end of October or in November. Meanwhile, hospital emergency rooms on the Big Island and across the state are starting to fill up.
“If there’s no more space, there’s nowhere else to go,” he said. “We’re doing our part to keep people out of the hospital.”