Hawaii public school families can expect to continue some distance learning through the end of the calendar year, the schools superintendent said at a news conference Thursday.

“We will be transitioning back slowly to a blended learning model over the second quarter (ending Dec 18),” said Superintendent Christina Kishimoto. “We will not be returning to full instruction until after winter break.”

The schools chief’s remarks came on a day the state Department of Health released long-awaited guidelines for the reopening of schools and recommendations on when schools should pull back from in-person instruction and return to remote learning due to coronavirus spread.

The guidelines, developed under new DOH leadership that includes acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble, offer the first concrete markers for when schools should consider bringing students back to campus — and when students should stay home — since the pandemic began six months ago.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school teacher Jolyn Yoneshige works on lesson with protective face shield on during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Kaneohe Elementary teacher Jolyn Yoneshige wears a face shield during a summer school class. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“There will inevitably be positive cases,” Kemble said at a morning press conference with Gov. David Ige and Kishimoto.

“It’s meant to be general guidance,” Kemble said. “The thresholds are combined with mitigation strategies. They’re meant to be flexible and applicable across a wide variety of school, areas and settings.”

The new DOH guidelines offer some numbers for when each school complex area should consider bringing students back to campus.

Decisions over which model to choose (at-home, blended or all in-person instruction) should be based on “available data of community transmission” as well as the school’s “capacity to implement appropriate mitigation measures in schools,” according to DOH guidance.

The numbers would be viewed island by island, not statewide, Kemble said.

Generally, if the number of cases per 10,000 residents per island remains at 36 and above over a 14-day period — the standard COVID-19 incubation period — stick to virtual learning for all students, the DOH recommends.

That correlates to a rough equivalent of 250 new cases a day for the island of Oahu.

If cases range from 26 to 35 per 10,000 residents over 14 days, the DOH advises elementary schools switch to blended learning while secondary students continue to learn from home.

If the case count ranges between 16 and 25, all schools can switch to blended learning.

And if the cases dip down to five and below, schools can bring all students back for in-person learning, according to DOH guidance.

To use Oahu as an example, with a population of 974,563 and 1,937 cases from Sept. 1 to Sept. 14, there were 19.9 cases per 10,000 for that 14-day period, the DOH noted.

In addition, the blueprint mandates safety protocols like wearing face masks; using at least 6 feet of physical distancing; encouraging students and staff to stay home when sick; using small cohorts of students like the ohana bubble; and providing all student support personnel a face shield and mask, among other things.

“Our ability to restart our economy depends in part on schools opening up safely so parents can go back to work without worrying about the well-being of our children.” — Gov. David Ige

In addition, the DOH guidelines say, schools should only consider a return to blended learning from at-home learning if it can adhere to 50% capacity at a school facility and 50% on school transportation.

For a total return to in-person learning, the DOH says there needs to be minimal to moderate community spread and that confirmed cases can be traced to a likely source of exposure and close contacts identified. School staffing needs to be sufficient as well, the DOH said.

The state’s teachers union on Thursday excoriated the new metrics, saying it looks as they were just “thrown together” without consulting with the union or classroom teachers, and that a gradual return to in-campus instruction will endanger teachers and students alike.

“I am just shocked looking at these metrics, they’re so far out of the norm of what’s happening in the rest of the country,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee, citing other school districts that have chosen to remain in all-distance mode for the time being.

The union leader said the DOE should assess the situation quarter by quarter and that “oscillating” between distance learning and in-person instruction over the proposed 14-day periods will just leave schools and staff more stressed.

Hawaii public schools have been back in session since Aug. 17 under an all-distance format due to spiking coronavirus cases — with the exception of vulnerable students like special education learners and those who don’t have internet at home.

Many of the state’s 13,700 teachers are still teaching from their classrooms, however.

The state DOE has recorded a total of 89 confirmed virus cases stemming from schools as of June 26 through Friday.

Ige stressed the importance of reopening schools to help revive the state’s economy.

“Our ability to restart our economy depends in part on schools opening up safely so parents can go back to work without worrying about the well-being of our children,” he said.

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