For weeks the state Department of Health has failed to provide written guidelines around bringing students back into the classroom – or closing schools —  in the time of COVID-19. This has led to uncertainty and a fair deal of frustration for anyone connected with the school system, even those at the top.

“The absence of detailed, written, and publicly shared guidance from the DOH for schools has resulted in confusion and questioning of the guidance documents issued by the DOE,” the state Board of Education said in a July 30 memo.

The health department still didn’t have guidelines ready this week, though Health Director Bruce Anderson said Tuesday that it was a top priority and would be based largely on guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The situation has given school principals a monumental task right now: safeguarding the health of hundreds if not thousands of students, teachers and staff as classes resume this week across Hawaii’s 257 public schools.

As coronavirus cases continue to surge, school leaders have had to formulate their own back-to-school plans, whether that’s moving to an all-virtual format or scrapping in-person plans due to safety considerations.

Molokai High School Principal Dr Katina Soares.
Molokai High School Principal Katina Soares decided to switch Molokai High to all distance learning out of an abundance of caution despite a lack of active coronavirus cases on that island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

On Molokai, an island that currently has zero active coronavirus cases, principals from several schools sent a joint letter to families Sunday announcing a last-minute switch to all-distance learning.

“In this case it was a school-level concern,” said Molokai High principal Katina Soares. “The tipping point was unexpected staff absences and the lack of time to properly train their substitutes on new protocols.”

In early August, Michael Nakasato, principal of Hakipu‘u Academy — a Hawaiian-focused public charter school on Oahu’s Windward side — decided it was safest for the community if the school went all-virtual.

“I’m honestly going by the gut,” he said. “I don’t have data. I don’t have much to back up what I’m doing. I’m just watching the TV. That’s how I’m making the decisions.”

The skyrocketing number of cases on the island was unnerving. People in the school community were leery of how the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic “decimated” the Hawaiian community, he said, and those conversations largely guided his move. The student body is 45% Native Hawaiians.

“We look to the past to move forward,” Nakasato said of Hakipu‘u’s philosophy. “We know factually that kids could get sick and they will survive. But we believe in the Hawaiian community it will go home … and spread throughout homes.”

Kauluwela Elementary School students and parents arrive for first day of in person instruction during a COVID-19 pandemic. August 17, 2020
Kauluwela Elementary School in Honolulu had small groups of students come on campus for in-person orientation this week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Right now, DOE schools have been instructed to use all-distance learning for the first four weeks of the school year, which started Monday, but exact scenarios vary school to school.

Some schools brought kids back on campus this week to pick up devices, meet teachers or get trained in online platforms.

Other schools have small cohorts of students who are in special education or who don’t have internet access at home come to school to accommodate learning needs.

Even policies around teacher teleworking vary. In some cases teacher requests to work remotely are being denied, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

In a press conference shortly after state leaders announced tighter restrictions for group gatherings — five people or less with the exception of child care and education — the union urged an extension of all-distance learning through Oct. 2 and more freedom for teachers to work remotely.

“Right now, it’s the Wild West out there in terms of what principals are doing. Some schools are distance learning; other schools, they’re allowing telework,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee.

Some school districts around the country are in a similar situation. But others have much more robust guidance from their health departments.

The New Jersey Department of Health, for instance, drafted a matrix to help inform local school leaders when a switch to all-remote learning is advised. Outlined scenarios include a single reported case at school, two or more cases in the same classroom, two or more cases across multiple classrooms and so on.

Hawaii school principals are wary of placing too much criticism on health and education officials for the lack of clear guidance. They say the coronavirus pandemic is a fast-moving and very fluid situation, but that better coordination between the two agencies would be helpful for those on the ground.

Washington Middle School wants to stay all-distance learning for the first quarter of the school year. When the state’s daily case count hit 355, principal Michael Harano said that was “alarming.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“Clear metrics or clear guidance is always better, that’s obvious,” said Michael Harano, principal for the last 18 years at Washington Middle School. “I’m not an expert in that area, so I don’t know if there were clear metrics or guidance to give.”

The central Honolulu school intends to be all-virtual for the first quarter ending Oct. 2, although the DOE’s official stance on the duration of remote learning is to reassess the situation by Sept. 8.

Harano said he developed his school reopening plan in collaboration with staff, noting that while outside guidance is helpful, those smaller “conversations about what we’re trying to do” are just as important.

While most of the school’s 780 students learn remotely, teachers teach from classrooms for easy access to learning materials. Students with high needs will come to campus for in-person instruction in groups no larger than six.

Another cohort no larger than five kids who lack internet at home can come on to campus to use wifi and connect with their teacher via Google Classroom. Meanwhile, the school community is practicing social distancing, wearing masks and cleaning and sanitizing.

“We’re taking all the precautions that need to be taken to make sure kids are safe and learning,” Harano said.

Nakasato has a little more flexibility in his school plans given he runs a charter school, which is publicly funded but reports to an independent governing board rather than the DOE.

He said he has no intention of bringing kids back to campus until it’s safe, which he defines as numbers “drastically going down, to 10 to 15 a day” with hospital beds abundantly free.

It’s possible the school will do distance learning for the entire year, he said.

“It all depends on how the state is controlling the situation,” Nakasato said.

In a press conference Tuesday, state health director Anderson said he’s working on forming a team to come up with more specific guidelines for schools — an effort now more than a month in the making.

“We don’t have that at this point. I can assure you our response to students will be the highest priority,” he said.

Anderson said DOH would be “leaning heavily” on recent guidance from the CDC but would work with the Hawaii DOE for “clear understandings of what people should do and when.”

The federal guidelines generally recommend practices like “cohorting,” or keeping students and staff in one group throughout the day and having rotating schedules. It also has broad suggestions on what to do if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 and at what point schools should close for in-person learning, while emphasizing school administrators should work with local health officials.

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