Hawaii education and health leaders welcomed a finding by federal health officials that schools can safely reopen with adequate precautions against the coronavirus and the prohibition of things like indoor sports, but they warned against acting too quickly.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an article published Tuesday that the “preponderance of available evidence” from this past fall semester has been “reassuring” in that schools that did reopen didn’t report the same kind of rapid case spread as high-density work sites or shared housing facilities.

The report came amid a debate in Hawaii and other states over the return to in-person learning as many students are suffering academically and emotionally as the pandemic nears a second year.

Hilo Union School sign reads ‘Stay Healthy Wash your hands’ during COVID-19 pandemic. Hilo, Hawaii. September 24, 2020
Many Hawaii DOE schools have gradually starting bringing more students back to campus this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The CDC study is good news,” Corey Rosenlee, the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, told Civil Beat in an emailed statement. But he insisted that Hawaii’s public schools are not following existing CDC guidance on things like keeping students in small cohorts or conducting widespread coronavirus testing.

“Until those needed precautions are met, HSTA believes we should take a cautious approach and remain in 100% distance learning mode until more teachers and students get vaccinated,” Rosenlee said.

An effort to vaccinate teachers is underway, although the DOE had no numbers to share on exactly how many of its 22,000 full-time employees — about 13,000 of whom are teachers — have or plan on getting the vaccine, during a budget briefing to the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

The article in The Journal of the American Medical Association— which was accompanied by a case study of 17 K-12 schools that reopened in Wisconsin last fall — did not constitute an official CDC position, but it offered one of the strongest assertions yet that schools are not large spreaders of COVID-19.

“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the U.S. as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the researchers wrote.

Precautions Still Needed

However, a safe reopening was contingent on proper mask wearing, distancing between students, increased air ventilation in classrooms and expanding screening and testing, the researchers said. They also emphasized the importance of enforcing broader community measures like restrictions on in-person dining, minimizing sports competitions and other large gatherings.

Furthermore, the CDC authors said schools should still continue to offer options for online education particularly for the medically vulnerable.

Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, said the conclusion “corroborates our local experience and views I have shared previously that schools are in many ways safer than being out and about in the community.”

“We feel our current guidance reflects that principle,” she said. “Many schools are just now expanding the number of students on campus, and the current guidance seems to be working pretty well to mitigate spread of COVID-19 on campuses.”

The Hawaii Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about half of U.S. students are still learning virtually. In Hawaii, most public schools are in a blended learning style, meaning some students come to campus some days, while others learn from home.

The most recent available data from DOE shows that up to a quarter of all DOE students in the first quarter of the school year, Aug. 17 until Oct. 2, were doing full-distance learning.

The DOE said it would update its metrics of how many students are learning virtually now versus on campus by the end of the week.

The DOE relies on official guidance from both the CDC and the state Department of Health to direct the reopening of schools, although superintendent Christina Kishimoto has said it’s really a decision made at the school and complex-area level based on the flow of community transmission.

Kemble said it’s important to monitor the progress of public schools during the current “return to learn” stage in this second semester “before considering changes to the current guidance.”

“I think one of the biggest challenges will be in asking our schools and communities to hold back on return to full in-person extracurricular activities and sports events where social distancing might not be possible,” she said. “These activities are very much a part of the social fabric of schools, and yet we need to move cautiously and take things step-by-step to make sure we don’t jeopardize the safe learning environments schools have worked so hard to establish.”

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