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Hawaii public schools prepare for students’ return as omicron surge fuels safety concerns

As Hawaii’s 257 public schools press on with the plan to return to full in-person learning Tuesday amid the unprecedented omicron surge, the question for many is: Will it be safe?

The answer varies, experts say, depending on the student’s health and vaccination status, and the classroom conditions.

Dr. Scott Miscovich says he thinks students and teachers who are fully vaccinated generally can return to school feeling relatively safe, especially if they have received a booster shot and are properly masked.

But if a student is unvaccinated, or has medical conditions, including obesity, that put them at risk for complications and hospitalization from COVID, he said, “I would not be sending my child back right now.” He voiced the same caution for teachers and staff.

In addition, cloth masks and gaiters are inadequate, due to omicron’s high transmissibility and greater tendency to adhere in the upper airways, said Miscovich, who is president, CEO and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii.

He recommended N95 or KN95 masks, and stressed that the mask should be sealed tight all around the sides, so that the person is breathing through it, not around it.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Tim Brown of the East-West Center also has called for the use of N95 or KN95 masks in schools, and said the state should have made a plan to use federal funds to purchase and provide them for students and teachers.

Brown and Miscovich in separate remarks also said that the schools’ use of 3 feet as a standard for distancing is no longer adequate with omicron. Miscovich added that he feels it’s crucial that the DOE complete and make public a thorough professional assessment of the air ventilation quality for every classroom.

Miscovich said he hopes parents will advise their children to speak up if they don’t feel classroom distancing and ventilation are safe, or if they notice anyone not properly masked.

The state Department of Education has maintained that resuming in-person learning is crucial for students’ social development and academic achievement.

”While we remain vigilant due to the omicron variant, we have consistent safety measures in place that have proven effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” Interim state Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a recent statement. “Core safety protocols such as getting vaccinated and boosted, masking, social distancing and hand-washing have helped keep our positivity rates lower than the broader community, as well as our counterparts on the mainland.”

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