New interim rules for Hawaii K-12 schools will cut in half the recommended time that teachers and students should isolate or quarantine for COVID-19, from the previous 10 days to five. But the Hawaii teachers union and other critics feel the measure is too little, too late, to keep students and teachers safe while learning in person.
The new guidance was created to align with that of the CDC, and to help maintain crucial in-person learning, State schools Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi and State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said in a news conference today. It applies to all of Hawaii’s 257 regular public schools, and 37 charter schools, as well as private schools, a state Department of Health spokesman said.
Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms should isolate for five days regardless of their vaccination status. They can return to school when all the following conditions are met:
>> Five full days have passed since symptoms first appeared or since the test was conducted.
>> No fever for 24 hours.
>> Symptoms have improved.
Students and staff who have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 should quarantine for five days after last contact if:
>> They have not completed their primary vaccine series (2 shots Pfizer or Moderna, 1 shot J&J).
>> They are 18 or older and have completed their primary vaccine series but have not received a recommended booster when eligible.
>> Students and staff should get tested on day five of quarantine, even if they do not have symptoms.
Students and staff are not required to quarantine if:
>> They are ages 5-17 and have completed their primary series of COVID-19 vaccines (2 shots Pfizer or Moderna).
>> They are 18 and older and have received all recommended vaccine doses including boosters.
Schools in Hawaii and nationwide have been struggling with staffing during the unprecedented COVID-19 omicron variant surge. Hayashi confirmed that approximately 12% of the DOE’s 12,800 teachers continue to call out, half due to sickness, half for other reasons such as vacation and family leave. Hundreds fewer substitute teachers than needed have signed up to work.
While Hayashi said student attendance has held steady or risen in nine of 15 school complexes, many teachers have reported widespread absences.
Waianae Intermediate School shifted to virtual learning on Monday and came back to in-person learning today, a state Department of Education spokewoman said,
Sunset Beach Elementary School will be on remote learning for four school days, starting Wednesday.
Kamaile Academy is on distance learning all of this week, the latest local public charter school in a growing list shifting to distance larning.
Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said the union generally supports following the latest CDC guidance. But he decried what he sees as a failure of the DOE to work with the union much earlier in the pandemic to create a clear, public plan for COVID-19 surge situations.
“The schools are having to scramble without any kind of template we have worked out,” he said. There should be a clear strategy to provide laptops for distance learning, time for teachers to make the shift from in-person to virtual classes, testing and vaccines widely available, professional classroom air testing, safety supplies and much more. A complaint to the Hawaii Labor Relations Board is still pending.
Hayashi said the new guidance strikes a balance, helping teachers and students to come back quicker, and lessening disruptions to learning. “The reduced isolation and quarantine guidance supports our efforts to continue to prioritize in-person learning while upholding safety protocols in our schools,” Hayashi said in a statement. “The revisions also recognize the protection that vaccinations provide for staff and students, and the added protection boosters provide for eligible staff. More than 90% of HIDOE employees are vaccinated, and we continue to support efforts to make vaccinations accessible in our schools along with COVID testing opportunities.”
Kemble added in a statement: “School have the tools they need to help keep students safe from COVID-19. Vaccines, boosters, masks, and cohorting all contribute to a safe environment.”