After a slow start, state officials are ramping up COVID-19 testing throughout Hawaii’s public schools, part of an overall strategy to help contain the spread of the coronavirus at school facilities where close to 3,000 cases have been reported since the start of the school year.
Screening on school campuses was identified as one of several key safety measures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Hawaii Department of Health this summer as students prepared to return to classrooms. The testing was part of a layered safety strategy that also includes mask wearing, increasing ventilation, hand washing, promoting vaccinations and reminding students to stay home when sick.
It’s now a month and half into the school year and the majority of public schools still haven’t begun screening, but State Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble told members of the House Committee on Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness on Wednesday that the testing program is “moving very quickly.”
She said 161 out of the Department of Education’s 257 public schools have now registered for the federally-funded program, called Operation Expanded Testing, and 59 schools have begun testing. An additional 13 charter schools also have started screening students.
It wasn’t immediately clear why more schools aren’t registered for the program, which Kemble said is open to all schools. However, she suggested that it may be taking time for schools to identify someone who can oversee the testing on school campuses. She said it didn’t need to be medical staff and could even be a coach or someone from the community.
The Department of Health is also seeking assistance from the Hawaii National Guard to support the screening program on school campuses, according to a Sept. 1 memo provided to the Star-Advertiser by the Hawaii State Teachers Association after the hearing.
The program is free and available to public, charter and private schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, according to information from the Hawaii Department of Health. The screening testing is a way of identifying potential spread of the virus even if there is no reason to suspect someone is infected and includes testing asymptomatic individuals.
“Screening testing gives us a sense of transmission within various communities,” said Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the Department of Health by email. “It also gives parents peace of mind. It helps protect schools and keep them open.”
The program is voluntary and parents decide whether or not to enroll their children. Students can be tested once a week and on a weekly basis, said Baehr. If students do develop COVID-19 symptoms at school, or come into contact with someone who tests positive, parents can have them tested at school.
CDC guidelines released this summer to guide schools throughout the country on their reopening plans identified screening testing as particularly important for schools that can’t maintain physical distancing between students, which has been the case in many of Hawaii’s public schools. To be effective, students should be tested at least once a week, according to the CDC, with results reported within 24 hours.
However, Baehr said the state is sending the nasal swabs to a mainland lab where results will be available in about three days.
COVID-19 safety protocols within Hawaii’s schools have been the subject of criticism from the Hawaii State Teachers Association since the start of the school year. HSTA President Osa Tui told the Star-Advertiser that the union “would love to have testing available on all sites” to help relieve the anxiety and stress on school campuses. He also called the turnaround time for results “distressing.”
Tui said the union was frustrated that many details about the program still haven’t been communicated to the HSTA and its members.
Hawaii continues to battle high COVID-19 case numbers. On Wednesday, the Hawaii Department of Health reported 11 new coronavirus-related deaths and 493 new infections statewide. Case numbers have been particularly high among children, with those under 12 still not eligible for the vaccines. Among residents between the ages of 0 and 17, there were an average of 398 cases reported during the week ending Sept. 5, according to state data. This is 11 times higher than average case counts reported just two months ago.