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Editorial: Improve DOE plan for school safety

After an unprecedented 2020-21 school year, during which the state continuously grappled with pandemic-related challenges, more than 26,000 public school students enrolled in summer education opportunities — with most taking part in face-to-face learning. The small-scale pivot back to on-campus classrooms buoyed confidence that large-scale in-person learning would be a safe instruction mode in this new school year.

But now, several weeks into the 2021-22 year, it’s clear that to secure the confidence of many families and school employees rattled by virus uncertainties, Hawaii’s Department of Education needs to better frame and publicly articulate plans for COVID-19 mitigation and creativity in use of space.

During a state House Education Committee meeting last week, interim Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi’s imprecise responses about protective actions underscored that the recent surge in coronavirus cases has caught the DOE flat-footed as the majority of 171,600 students returned to campuses.

Hayashi said an unspecified number of students are attending class in settings that fall short of the 3-feet-apart guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While understandable that such spacing is “not practical” in some classrooms, what would be unacceptable is absence of effort to swiftly pinpoint overcrowded settings and launch workaround efforts.

In an Aug. 3 letter sent to parents and guardians, Hayashi noted that recently updated state Department of Health guidance advised continuing already implemented rules, such as indoor mask-wearing and proper hand hygiene. Not included in the must-do “core essential strategies” for schools, though, was the controversial matter of physical distancing.

The guidance instead grouped it with a separate set of tactics, to be applied to the “greatest extent possible.” Also on that list: designated cohort bubbles, improved ventilation and screening tests. The Hawaii State Teachers Association has rightly raised concerns about what the vaguely stated directive means for physical distancing.

Further, in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the union, which recently filed a grievance against DOE on health and safety issues, contended that the department had not been collecting data on lack of distancing or on how many staff and students isolated because of COVID-19. The grievance said “thousands of staff and students” have been sent home for at least 10 days of quarantine following exposure to infected individuals.

As of Sunday, 2,733 school-based cases had been reported since July 1. Daily counts, which began climbing after the school year started, now appear to be tapering. However, due to the slow pace of statewide vaccinations, the DOE is far from out-of-the-woods status. In response, a robust push is in order to find more space, where needed, to improve physical distancing — repurpose underused rooms and other campus facilities, indoor and outdoor.

Also needed is a uniform systemwide protocol to advise and guide students and their families on how to stay connected to schools and classwork while under quarantine. Among the hard lessons learned during last year’s largely virtual instruction mode: Abrupt disconnection from in-person learning contributes to higher levels of failing grades and dropout risk.

Additionally, as vaccination remains the most effective weapon in the battle to crush community spread, the DOE, in tandem with school communities, should consider following the lead of other school systems — most notably, Los Angeles — by initiating discussion about the possibility of a vaccine requirement for eligible public school students, particularly those age 16 and older.

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