Hawaii’s top health officials waded into a growing furor over the Hawaii Department of Education’s school reopening plan, telling state lawmakers Thursday that the decision to reopen classrooms in a few short weeks has to be a balancing act between health and safety considerations and meeting children’s educational needs.

“The only way to completely obviate the risks for kids, teachers, is, you stay home. And I think everyone understands that’s not an option,” said State Epidemiologist Sarah Park. “You cannot shelter in place forever. But that’s the only way you won’t be infected.”

Park, a pediatrician, emphasized to a state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 that schools must practice appropriate sanitation measures like hand washing and wearing of masks, and that by separating younger kids into “Ohana bubbles,” schools could minimize the potential to spread the virus.

“If infection is introduced, unfortunately, in a school — because of consistency and each classroom is a bubble, that bubble is the one that is affected and not the entire school,” she said.

Kishimoto, Sarah Park, DOE, DOH, Senate Covid committee, Legislature
School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left, state Health Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park talk to the Senate Special COVID-19 Committee on the DOE reopening plan. Screenshot/2020

Park joined Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Director of Health Director Bruce Anderson at the State Capitol, facing lawmakers who grilled them on the wisdom of reopening Aug. 4. Hawaii has recorded spikes in positive tests in recent days and the lawmakers wanted to know about DOE’s options for all-online learning as well as issues with teachers who can’t report to school because they have child care needs at home.

Sen. Kurt Fevella, of Ewa Beach, urged the DOE to push back the start of the new school year to after Labor Day. He said he’s hearing from teachers that they feel they don’t have adequate training to handle the new learning environment.

He was skeptical that younger kids would stay in small circles, especially on the playground, and suggested it takes just one kid to get sick and throw everything into disarray.

“How is that going to be more positive moving forward when most of the teachers are not ready to go back in August?” he said.

Kishimoto responded, “There’s trepidation if we don’t open up, and there’s trepidation if we do open up.”

DOE plans to welcome back all 179,000 students on Aug. 4. Not all kids will be on campus. The first two weeks will be half-days for students, so teachers can prepare lessons, receive training and assess the needs of their students. On Aug. 17, schools will switch to full days.

“When you’re young, you need to see peoples’ faces, and to understand and have good language skills and socialize normally.” — State Epidemiologist Sarah Park

Each of the 257 DOE schools have chosen an instructional model, whether that is all-distance learning, in-person instruction, or a blended learning model, where the student body is divided up into groups, alternating their days on campus. The DOE says in-person instruction should be prioritized for kids in grades PreK-2 and for high needs students such as special education and English language learners.

The Hawaii DOE would be the first of the nation’s largest school systems to begin the 2020-21 school year.

It will serve as a test case to other U.S. school districts, which are in the midst of announcing their own reopening frameworks. Some school districts, like Los Angeles Unified, the country’s second largest, will be going all-online when it opens Aug. 18, due to a surge in coronavirus cases.

The Aloha State currently has the lowest prevalence of coronavirus cases in the country, Anderson pointed out to the state Senate panel.

“In 40 other states, I would not consider opening schools at this point in time,” he said.

Anderson also pointed out that so far it appears kids are far less likely to be seriously stricken by coronavirus than older adults, although one of Thursday’s 19 new coronavirus cases was under 18.

“That doesn’t necessarily help the teachers or faculty but for the kids themselves, the risk is relatively low for serious disease,” he said.

Anderson said it’s likely Hawaii will see new cases among kids once they return to classrooms, but if the kids can be kept in smaller classes through the bubble method, “we can close that class and we won’t close the entire school or certainly the whole education system.”

“The opening of our schools I think is very important for our young children for developmental progression and so forth,” he said. “In the hierarchy of things, I would put the starting of schools as a very important activity, but it has to be under very important conditions.”

Anderson added that DOH is monitoring the situation daily and that if conditions in the state change dramatically when it comes to case counts, “we’re not going to reopen schools in an unhealthy community.”

He said Gov. David Ige has asked him to convene a panel of experts to come up with guidelines showing when it would be necessary to delay reopening schools.

Although the DOE introduced its school reopening plan on July 2, there is still much confusion surrounding its implementation.

Kishimoto, Sarah Park, DOE, DOH, Senate Covid committee, Legislature
Members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 were concerned about various elements of the state DOE’s plans to reopen schools in August. 

State Sen. Sharon Moriwaki asked about the DOE’s capability to provide a full distance learning plan for parents who want that option. Sen. Michelle Kidani asked about the DOE’s plans to plug holes created by teachers who need to take emergency paid sick leave due to the need to care for little ones at home.

“We’re already short of teachers,” Kidani, who chairs the Senate Education Committee noted. “Should this happen, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole asked the DOH and DOE to clarify the confusion over the 3 foot vs. 6 foot spacing issue that led to an uproar by the teachers’ union and an updated memorandum of understanding between the union and DOE.

Six-feet of spacing is now the required benchmark; if teachers wish to configure their classrooms with desks spaced closer than that, they must receive a contract exception from a panel comprised of two DOE and two HSTA representatives.

Park said the 3-foot guidance when facing forward was reserved for older students, who have the ability to sit still for longer periods than younger kids, and was meant to be for the classroom setting only — not a place like a cafeteria.

She noted the importance of trying to keep younger students in smaller bubbles so they don’t have to mix a lot with other students on campus.

“It’s minimizing potentially who else will get infected … and allowing them to socially develop,” she said. “When you’re young, you need to see peoples’ faces, and to understand and have good language skills and socialize normally. You need to be able to see facial features and interpret them.

“This is one area I feel really strongly about.”

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