Sarah Guay, a Kailua parent of three, needs to be extra cautious these days. The human resources professional, who works from home, recently went through chemotherapy for an aggressive form of cancer and will soon start radiation.

Told by her doctor she would need to take extra precautions due to the threat of coronavirus, Guay does not leave the house except for the occasional trip to the grocery store.

Still, the 46-year-old Guay is adamant that her two youngest children, a first-grader and fourth-grader at a Hawaii Department of Education elementary school, return for face-to-face instruction for their own social, emotional and academic well-being.

“Even in this situation, I feel there’s an opportunity to have a safe plan for them to return,” she said. “I’m that committed to that possibility. If I believe there’s a way to do this, there has got to be a way.”

Kauluwela Elementary School staff uses a thermometer to check arriving students during COVID-19 pandemic. August 17, 2020
Temperature screenings have been among the precautions taken by schools who have welcomed students back. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That even someone in Guay’s current circumstance is so keen on seeing her kids return to school she would be willing to relax strict personal safeguards is a reflection of how desperately some parents in Hawaii want to see their kids back in class.

It’s been almost three months since the start of the school year for DOE schools. They have stuck mostly to distance learning for most of the state’s 174,000 public school students.

Many private schools in Hawaii have brought back students, if only on a staggered or alternating basis. Some DOE schools are gradually bringing back their lowest grades this month though others have notified parents they won’t return to in-person instruction until at least January.

In some cases, like Kalani High, it’s the older kids who are returning first, starting with seniors on Nov. 23 on an alternating twice-a-week schedule.

Hawaii, according to recent modeling based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, showed the least change from May to September when it came to school closures and reliance on distance learning.

In other words, the data shows that while many states returned to in-person learning by the fall, Hawaii as a whole has been among the slowest to return.

The patchwork of school reopening plans across the Aloha State begs the question of what a safe classroom or campus does or should look like in the current environment. Is it possible to bring students back safely right now?

“That’s a really complicated question,” said Michael Ching, a pediatrician and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics Hawaii chapter. “It requires making sure those risk mitigation strategies are in place. COVID-19 is not evenly distributed in our population — there are communities that are more affected and communities that are less affected.”

By now, evolved guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state health department and public health officials has produced a generally accepted line-up of baseline safety measures: keep masks on during the day, wash hands vigorously and often, keep kids contained in small groups, make sure to have students and staff stay home if sick or someone in their household is exposed to the virus.

But some schools are interpreting what’s safest for their students in different ways.

school, DOE, desk shield, PPE
A screenshot of a July 30 GoFundMe page by a DOE first-grade teacher to raise funds to buy desk shields. Screenshot/2020

The Parent Teacher Organization at Waikiki Elementary, for instance, is intent on securing desk shields through a school-wide fundraising effort.

Tom Jackson, head of the PTO, said the board decided to launch the effort “out of necessity and in an attempt to put returning students, parents and faculty members at ease.”

“The idea came from seeing these desk shields spotlighted through other various media outlets,” he said in an email. “Teachers should not have to pay out of pocket for school supplies.”

The Hawaii DOE has supplied personal protective equipment to schools such as face masks, gloves, isolation gowns, disposable shoe coverings, hand sanitizer, thermometers, bleach, disinfectant spray, wipes and pump bottles.

The DOE ordered a three-month supply of PPE beginning on Sept. 9 through the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, covered by $3 million of CARES Act money allocated to HI-EMA by the Legislature.

This order can satisfy DOE’s PPE needs through at least February, according to Bruce Ellerman, coordinator at the DOE Office of Facilities and Operations. The department has set aside $4 million to assume PPE costs for the rest of the school year when the HI-EMA supply runs out.

To put the $3 million cost of a three-month supply of PPE into context, that’s the total amount spent by Punahou so far to bolster its COVID-19 school reopening plan.

At the K-12 Oahu private school, which charges $27,000 in yearly tuition, kindergarteners through the fifth grade are now back in school each day, while middle schoolers are alternating one week on, one week off. “Academy” students, or high schoolers, returned to campus Oct. 13.

The school has imposed strict safety protocols, including providing K-8 classes with desk partitions and grouping students into smaller class sizes and cohorts.

One key to ensuring a safe return is keeping the virus at bay through open communication with families, said Virginia Loo, director of analytics and planning and co-chair of Punahou’s Pandemic Response Team.

Punahou, school, distance learning, safe classroom
Donning face shields, Punahou third graders listen to a story by their teacher, Jerusha Hagen Tabori. Courtesy: Punahou School/2020

“One thing we’ve really tried to pay attention to and the most important way to reduce risk is to keep sick people off campus,” said Loo, a 1992 Punahou graduate. “If we don’t have infected people on campus, we can have the same kind of operation as we did on campus.”

Punahou also maintains and updates a health dashboard on the latest COVID-19 cases in the community and a weekly summary of what they’re seeing as far as any elevated temperatures among the school community.

Evolving School Guidance

The Hawaii Department of Health’s school reopening guidance relies on a seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases and percent positivity rate as thresholds to determine when it’s safe for kids to come back.

Some researchers contend such things like case incidence and test positivity thresholds are no longer the most pressing questions for school leaders.

Susan Coffin, an epidemiologist with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said such numbers are not necessarily representative of the level of risk to a school community since an outbreak in a long-term care setting or other sequestered community could artificially inflate those numbers.

“It can give a perception of rising risk in the community, when in fact the rising cases are happening in a location that doesn’t necessarily raise risk to the average member of the community,” she said.

According to an October brief on safely reopening schools by PolicyLab, schools should offer “clear instructions for families” and also staff up school nurses, promote flu vaccine education and consider holding classes in outdoor spaces or larger spaces like the cafeteria or auditorium rather than small classrooms.

“I think what’s important to remember is, (school reopenings) can be done and it can be done well, it just takes a lot of commitment by the families, kids and staff,” Coffin said.

Here in Hawaii, there’s been little need for total school closures, mostly because so few schools have reopened completely. Lanai High & Elementary recently had to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the island and Kapolei High also shuttered for a week when several staff members tested positive within a few days of each other.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union that represents 13,500 public school teachers, is still wary of bringing students back right now.

“Do I believe Oahu is safe? No, I do not,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “Do I believe neighbor island schools could potentially go back? If metrics are met and other DOH standards (are) met.”

Mid-Pacific Institute, a K-12 school in Manoa Valley that has brought back all students so far but its high schoolers, has recorded only one positive case among auxiliary staff, according to Leigh Fitzgerald, VP of academic affairs.

Waianae High School Sign reads ‘Wear your Mask’ during COVID-19 pandemic. October 30, 2020
Many DOE schools plan to start bringing students back in phases starting this month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The school has hired people to monitor study halls before and after school so students have a place to hang out in a socially distanced way and don’t cluster together in hallways. It also brought on 40 additional in-house substitute teachers to allow for smaller class sizes and cut the standard eight periods in a day to four longer periods so students don’t move around as much.

“I think schools can be creative with new purposing,” Fitzgerald said. “We removed everything from classrooms that weren’t imperative to make room for kids and desks.”

One key piece of advice she offers is to “go slow” and “don’t rush things” when it comes to reopening a school.

Guay, the Kailua parent, said her children’s school, Kainalu Elementary, is planning to bring back its youngest students in phases.

Her first-grade son will soon be going back to school twice a week, where he will be placed in a small group. The school has also built outdoor learning spaces and benches. Her fourth-grade daughter may not return until January.

“It is better than nothing,” Guay said.

“I think we’re all doing our own calculus around safety and what we’re willing to accept from a risk perspective,” she said. “We thought long and hard about it and decided there are ways to mitigate the risk.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author