Thirteen positive coronavirus cases have been reported across Hawaii Department of Education schools since the summer, the DOE said Tuesday, shortly after the teachers union pressed the department and health officials for greater transparency in school-based cases as many students return to school next week.

But, short of identifying the complex area and date of notification of the positive cases, the DOE did not provide further details, including specific schools.

The announcement from the DOE came shortly after the Hawaii State Teachers Association held a press conference to discuss its knowledge of at least one coronavirus case on nine DOE campuses since teachers reported back to work at the end of July.

“Teachers were notified of the outbreak but the parents and greater public were not,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “Neither the DOH nor DOE are telling the public about cases.”

Lunalilo Elementary School sign on Fern Street, ‘Welcome Back School Starts August 17’ during COVID-19 pandemic. August 5, 2020

A Lunalilo Elementary School sign on Fern Street welcomes students back during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rosenlee said HSTA learned of the impacted schools through its network. Schools that reported at least one positive COVID-19 case as of Thursday include Campbell High, Kapolei Middle and Moanalua High.

While the union also included Moanalua Elementary on the list, the DOE later said that was incorrect. As for another reported case from Hilo Intermediate, the DOE said it involved “a visitor to campus who had extremely limited interactions.”

The HSTA also said it learned teachers had to quarantine due to confirmed cases at four other campuses as of July 31, including Iliahi Elementary, Kaala Elementary, Leilehua High and Waialae Public Charter School.

Rosenlee said the actual amount of positive cases at those individuals schools “is not known,” adding the DOE has not disclosed exactly how many school staff members were asked to quarantine and that the DOH had not individually reached out to impacted individuals for contact tracing.

He added that state education leaders cannot make informed decisions about reopening schools at this time without “accurate, up to date information.”

According to the DOE chart, there have been 13 reported cases at a DOE school or office thus far — including four cases in the Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua complex area between July 24 and July 30 and three cases in the Campbell-Kapolei complex area between Aug. 5 and Aug. 8.

The single reported case on Kauai dates back to June 26. The DOE previously disclosed there were six positive cases arising from summer learning programs — one case each in five Oahu schools and one in a Kauai school.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a statement that “timely notification was made to the impacted school community” for each reported COVID-19 case.

She reiterated the DOE’s official position that the DOH is the lead agency in terms of notifying people who may have been exposed.

“If a case rises to a level requiring immediate, broader notification to the public, the Department will respond accordingly,” she said in the statement.

In a press conference with reporters later Tuesday, Kishimoto said she had requested the DOH provide a team of contact tracers devoted solely to the K-12 education system.

But that could be a hard sell. The DOH has come under increasing scrutiny in its botched handling of the rise of coronavirus cases, including actual capacity of contact tracers. The union representing tracers filed a grievance against the DOH late Monday, according to a Hawaii News Now report.

Asked when DOE would provide broader notification to the public regarding cases at schools, Kishimoto said she would work with DOH officials “to determine whether there is some kind of spread or exposure that would trigger the need for some kind of community notification.”

“Once it starts getting broader, and impacting several schools or a region or a cluster of possible cases,” she said, adding that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and health privacy laws prohibit broader notification of individual coronavirus cases.

On Friday, HSTA called for all DOE public schools to begin the school year with all-distance learning in light of the spike in coronavirus cases. There were 118 new cases reported Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to nearly 2,000 active cases. Almost all the cases are on Oahu.

The DOE first modified its school reopening plan for Oahu schools on Friday, with the first four weeks to be spent on distance learning. It also said the first week back starting on Aug. 17 would be spent on “in-person training,” with students physically returning to campus on a staggered basis, determined by each individual school, to get trained in distance learning platforms and get set up with devices.

But it said vulnerable students would receive more in-person access that first week.

Later Tuesday, the DOE announced that public schools on neighbor islands would also start with full distance learning the first four weeks of the school year with the exception of Molokai schools and Hana High & Elementary.

According to HSTA Vice President Osa Tui Jr., some schools, even on Oahu, are still sticking to their plan to bring students back for face-to-face instruction as early as next week.

Schools have been forced to modify their plans in light of shifting guidance and protocols over the past few months, including a delayed start to the school year and clarification of six feet distancing between desks versus three feet distancing.

“Throughout the system, everyone’s doing their own thing because there’s not clear guidance at the top,” he said.

The HSTA wants every public school in the state to start with distance learning through at least the first quarter, which ends Oct. 2.

Campbell High School photography teacher Anthony McCurdy said he was asked to self-quarantine by his administration over the weekend after a positive case was identified at the school. He will be teleworking until Aug. 24.

McCurdy, who is over 50 and diabetic, said he worries about his exposure to the virus because of his age, health condition and the fact that he lives with high-risk individuals in his household.

While he said his school administration did everything they could to follow up with the staff they felt were exposed, he never received any follow up call from the DOH.

He said the school followed safety protocols like requiring teachers to wear masks when they came back to campus and asking them to participate in virtual meetings with each other when they could.

“All of that stuff was there,” he said. “The fact is, it’s in the community, and we’re part of the community. We’re not a bubble unfortunately.”

An email sent out by Campbell High’s principal to staff members on Sunday indicated the school would sanitize “the impacted areas” all day Sunday, with the campus to reopen Monday.

The email states that while DOH is “the lead agency in terms of notifying individuals who were possibly exposed” the agency is “busy with an increased caseload.”

The principal, Jon Henry Lee, wrote that the school made “initial notifications” to those they felt came into close contact with the impacted person, which he defined as “being within 6 feet of the person for 15 minutes or longer.”

According to McCurdy, six other teachers were asked to self-quarantine by school administrators.

The Hawaii DOE’s School Reopening Plan states that when a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19, the DOH will conduct an investigation, determine who should be doing a 14-day home quarantine and work with the school principal in the event of a possible case.

Although DOH Director Bruce Anderson said last month he had been asked by Gov. David Ige to form a task force to come up with “trigger points” to use for when a school campus should shut down, the HSTA said no such update has been provided.

“Our principals are not contact tracers and have not been trained to be contact tracers,” Rosenlee said.

Before you go . . .

During this unique election season, we appreciate that you and others like you have relied on Civil Beat for accurate, objective coverage of the candidates and their races.

Covering the pandemic has taken a lot of our collective energy. But through it all, our small team of reporters made sure you didn’t forget about electoral politics. Because we know that elections not only test society’s participation in our democracy, but journalism’s commitment to safeguarding it.

If you’ve relied on our election coverage this season, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our newsroom.

About the Author