“Taking it week by week.” That’s how Karen Maluo, director of Kalihi Union Church Preschool, describes the decision-making process on whether to close or stay open amid the uncertainty over the coronavirus outbreak around the islands.

The Honolulu preschool, which serves 3- to 5-year-old children, has an enrollment of 49. But that figure has dwindled to 15, as parents decide to keep their children home.

The preschool, just coming off its spring break, will stay open this week, according to Maluo, largely because of the needs of working parents, some of whom are health care workers, hotel workers and public safety workers who must report to work.

“We’re open and serving parents that could not find accommodations for their children,” she said on Friday.

DOE schools with preschool classrooms and charter schools like Kamalani Academy are closed through April 7. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The situation around the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sickened more than 32,000 people in the U.S. as of Sunday, is so fast-changing, it’s hard to know what the next seven days will bring, let alone the next 24 hours. Hawaii reported 56 cases as of Sunday, up from 48 since Saturday and 37 the day before that.

On Saturday, Gov. David Ige imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming visitors and residents returning to Hawaii, effective Thursday, while Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Sunday signed an emergency order requiring Oahu dwellers to remain home starting Monday at 4:30 p.m. through April 30.

The emergency order requires everyone on Oahu to stay at home, except for essential activities, essential governmental activities or to operate essential businesses.

The extensive list of necessary functions includes child care facilities, so long as class sizes are limited to 12 or less, the child care groups do not shuffle around or switch instructors and groups within one facility be contained to separate rooms.

The order also does not apply to educational institutions, provided social distancing of 6 feet per person is maintained.

The Hawaii Department of Education has extended spring break for at least two weeks, until April 7, to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Many multi-grade private schools made the call to move completely to distance learning for the rest of the academic year.)

“Should the (public) schools come back into session, that would be allowed,” Caldwell said Sunday, adding he wouldn’t be surprised “if you saw them continue their not coming back to school.”

In a statement provided to Civil Beat on Sunday, the DOE said it is “assessing the impact of today’s announcements on our current plans to resume instruction statewide.”

Certain private preschools and day care centers that are not attached to either the DOE or larger private institutions are in a different position. Licensed by the state Department of Human Services, they’re providing a vital service for many front-line operators who can’t stay home to be with their kids.

That need, characterized as essential by some operators, is keeping their doors open.

“If parents still are required to report to the workplace, we will continue to do our very best to remain open,” states the website of The Cole Academy, a preschool and daycare center for children ages 6 weeks to 6 years with various locations around Hawaii.

Since early March, in light of the coronavirus, Cole Academy has limited its services to families who are required to keep working or have no other alternative options for child care.

The DHS has not issued any mandate for private childcare centers to shutter. There are nearly 600 such centers around the state, according to spokeswoman Amanda Stevens. Many of them have already moved to close. Some are closely watching what DOE is doing with its modified instructional schedule and delaying their openings accordingly.

On Tuesday, the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools sent out a memo to its members advising schools to close for at least four weeks or move to online-only learning, if possible.

“This difficult decision, of course, remains with you and the implementation strategy for each school will be unique to its community,” according to the letter, signed by Paul Singer, chair of the HAIS Board of Directors, and Philip Bossert, its executive director.

KCAA Preschools of Hawaii, one of the largest preschool operators in the state, has decided to extend its spring break through April 3. Kamaaina Kids, another large operator, did not return emails or messages asking what its plans will be moving forward.

There’s another consideration at play when it comes to childcare centers: the economic livelihood of staff who depend on their incomes. Maluo, the director of the Kalihi Union Church preschool, said she’s given her staff of five the option of whether to continue to keep coming into work. Some are elderly, she said.

The school is taking all the safety precautions it can. It spent all day Friday sanitizing classrooms from top to bottom, closed some of its areas so kids won’t touch as many toys and cut the number of children per class in accordance with the latest guidance to keep groups to 10 or less.

“There are staff that depend on their income. So we’re going to try and keep them safe as well,” said Maluo.

As for continuing to stay open or not, that’s a call the director said she’s going to have to make as the coronavirus situation unfolds. Staying open this week will at least buy some parents time for finding alternative child care options if they have to, she added.

“If cases are rising and the infection rate is higher, then we definitely won’t keep pushing forward,” she said.

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