Hawaii public schools will be able to tap a “COVID-19 Response Team” to help decide what to do if someone at a school tests positive or is suspected of having the coronavirus.

Department of Education officials detailed the new procedure at a Board of Education meeting Thursday.

As of last week, 15 cases had been reported at DOE schools, the DOE says.

The response team is expected to help school principals connect with the Department of Health and coordinate next steps.

“This response team is really committed to being very responsive to schools,” deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami told board members.

Kauluwela Elementary staff uses thermometer on arriving students during COVID-19 pandemic. August 17. 2020
The DOE has reported 15 school-based coronavirus cases since June 26, though the teachers union has reported more. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The response team is an internal DOE group consisting of assistant superintendents in charge of facilities and operations and student support services, plus the department’s main health services contact and the complex area leader. In conjunction with the principal, they’ll decide who in the school community should be notified including close contacts and what areas of the school need to be cleaned and sanitized.

The DOE has been criticized by the teachers union, lawmakers and parents for the way it handled public disclosure as students were returning to campuses this week. Teachers have been back in classrooms since late July.

Last week, the DOE unveiled a new “case count tracker” that it plans to update every Friday as new cases are reported.

But the case count tracker doesn’t specify which school the case occurred at but rather an entire complex area which could be a large geographic area on Oahu or encompass an entire island, in Kauai’s case.

The tracker lists the number of positive cases in a school complex area, plus whether people who may have been impacted were notified and whether cleaning was done at that location.

The “impacted community,” according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani, includes staff at that school and parents of children who attend that school. They’d be notified via email, text messaging, phone or other methods.

“We would put out a broad notification about a school case if we are unable to quickly notify impacted individuals or are unsure of the infected person’s contact with staff and students,” Kalani said via email.

Kalani said DOE’s decision to report cases broadly by complex area was based on privacy concerns, citing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — although HIPAA does not apply to elementary or secondary schools.

She said the DOE “balances the public’s right to know with the significant privacy interests” of the impacted person, including “protecting minors from being physically ostracized or psychologically harmed by being identified.”

At a meeting of the Senate Special COVID-19 Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Michelle Kidani asked Superintendent Christina Kishimoto why the DOE, at the very least, could not provide general information about a positive case, including whether it is a student, teacher or administrator.

“It just creates a lot of worry in the community for no purpose when you do not go to the school level,” she said.

School districts throughout the country are mixed when it comes to transparently communicating school-level coronavirus cases, according to USA Today, with little consistency in what school and health officials disclose publicly.

“As a parent, I can understand why parents want to know how many cases have been identified in a given school. I would argue, though, that community transmission numbers tell us at least as much as the school numbers when it comes to helping parents understand the risk for their children,” said Sara Johnson, associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In Hawaii, the Hawaii State Teachers Association has been releasing school names.

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