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Vaccination mandate for Hawaii public school students not planned, officials say

The head of the Hawaii Department of Education said Thursday there have been no discussions yet with state health officials about a possible vaccination mandate for public school students age 12 and up.

Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi told Board of Education members that would be a decision for the Department of Health to make. Hayashi also said he had no information on how many of the DOE’s 87,000 vaccine-eligible students have been immunized against the virus that so far has killed 679 people in Hawaii and sickened 73,856.

The DOH on Thursday reported eight new coronavirus-related deaths and 588 new confirmed and probable infections statewide. Seven of the latest deaths were on Oahu, the youngest a woman in her 30s, and one was on Hawaii island. The new cases include 388 on Oahu, 53 on Maui, 96 on Hawaii island, 38 on Kauai, four on Molokai and nine Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state.

Since July 1, DOE has reported nearly 3,000 cases at school facilities and offices.

Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr said the agency “is not currently discussing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students age 12 and older. We are focused on the voluntary vaccination of those who are eligible today.”

Under one of the toughest anti- COVID-19 mandates in the nation, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted Sept. 9 to require students age 12 and up to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 19. Those who can’t show proof of vaccination won’t be allowed in-person learning after the winter break without a medical or other exemption. The district has 630,000 students.

Hawaii BOE member Bruce Voss referenced the Los Angeles mandate and pointed out the state already requires students to be vaccinated against measles, polio, chicken pox, hepatitis A and B and a host of other diseases.

“Given that those immunizations are required for all students based on science, then why isn’t there more urgency to determine whether or when a student mandate (for COVID-19 vaccination) might be necessary?” Voss asked.

Hayashi responded that his department defers to DOH guidance on such matters but that he would contact health officials following the meeting. Voss “strongly encouraged” that discussion to take place and for DOE to “act promptly” if warranted.

The superintendent did provide BOE members with news that 90.4% of DOE’s salaried school and office employees statewide were fully or partially vaccinated as of Thursday — that’s 19,871 out of 21,978 workers. Two complexes — Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani and Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt — reported 95% of employees vaccinated.

The DOE already has conducted 151 school-based vaccination clinics for students, staff and household members, according to Hayashi, and is ready to offer clinics at elementary schools once COVID-19 vaccines are approved for younger children.

Board members also were told the DOE just this week set up an attendance system to track whether student absences were due to being quarantined or other reasons.

During the public comment period of its general meeting Thursday, BOE members got an earful from parents, teachers and others who complained about the apparent confusion and inconsistencies surrounding DOE’s COVID-19 policies and practices. There were also questions about the lack of widespread surveillance testing to detect potential outbreaks and contact tracing when confirmed cases are found.

“For as long as we’ve been back in school, there’s really no excuse,” said one parent.

Some spoke of flagging confidence in school leadership and safety measures that was leading parents to withdraw their children from in-person learning at public schools or leave the system entirely.

A number of testifiers also called for greater transparency of what is actually happening on the ground, with at least two accusing DOE of “gaslighting” parents “because their experiences are so different from what’s being reported to families,” remarked another parent.

The DOE is ramping up surveillance testing, with all 257 public schools expected to be registered for the federally funded Operation Expanded Testing program by Tuesday, Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami told the board; 59 schools already have begun testing. The program is voluntary, with parental approval required.

At a Student Achievement Committee meeting earlier in the day, BOE members expressed further disappointment that an updated draft “learning acceleration” plan to address pandemic-related learning loss fell short in providing details of how programs would be carried out — the same concerns they expressed at meetings in June and August.

While acknowledging the monumental challenges facing DOE, committee chairwoman Kili Namau‘u said the plan was still missing important information and that “there’s a lack of urgency here.”

“We have so many options here and I believe that the department has not taken a deeper dive and looked into all the possibilities and all the opportunities with funding to make a great difference in our schools … ,” she said. “We need to help them now, and we can’t be waiting for a date to come from the department in another month and then it gets put on the agenda and we look at it and mull it around. We need to act on these kinds of things now for the students who are falling through the cracks now.”

The options could include a home visiting system, tutoring, mentoring and other programs for the most vulnerable students, Namau‘u said, adding she was “dismayed” the draft “only talks about summer school … there’s no mention of those kinds of things.”

Hayashi said DOE officials “definitely realize the urgency” of supporting teachers and students under current circumstances. He clarified that systems and funding are already in place at schools for support programs and to allow for collaboration and sharing of best practices between campuses and complexes.

Having visited schools across the islands, “I can tell you I’ve seen with my own eyes the excitement and engagement in our students as they work alongside our teachers who are there and helping them with 100% effort,” he said.

The DOE continues to stress the importance of in-person learning, Hayashi explained, because students benefit not only from academic support when on campus but also are able to interact with their peers and teachers, get breakfast and lunch, and take advantage of other “wraparound services already occurring at school.”

Hayashi said student academic, social and emotional assessments are currently underway that will be used by education officials to further leverage federal funding for COVID-19-related programs. He said the data would be shared with the BOE at its October meeting.

The DOE was awarded $412.5 million in American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to safely reopen schools and return to in-person learning; address the academic impact of lost instructional time; invest in summer school and after-school programs; provide staffing to support student needs; and offset budget cuts.

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