Hawaii’s schools superintendent would like to see all elementary and middle school students back in class as soon as possible to lessen the strains of distance learning on young students in particular.

However, new federal guidelines should be clearer about what’s expected to safely get schools back to normal capacity, Christina Kishimoto said Wednesday during a conversation with Civil Beat’s editorial board.

Her remarks came several days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out a roadmap for allowing students to return to campus as long as adequate safety measures are in place, even without full teacher vaccinations as a prerequisite.

The superintendent said the updated guidance was “a little bit wishy-washy” when it came to laying out safe distancing protocols, which will be a key factor in ensuring there’s sufficient space.

Hawaii DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto answers questions during a virtual Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting. Screenshot

“The CDC did not go far enough to say with clarity whether the 6 feet of distancing rule is a necessary part of safety,” Kishimoto said during the Zoom interview.

“We can’t fit everyone back into our buildings with 6 feet of social distancing” she added. “That’s actually the most critical decision point that we have to make.”

Kishimoto also announced that she plans to meet with state and federal lawmakers and Department of Health officials on Friday to discuss the future of reopening schools in Hawaii.

She said questions on the agenda include: “How do we look at the CDC guidance? What does that mean for how we are planning out the rest of the year? Can we fully reopen schools? What keeps us from doing it?”

Nearly three-quarters of Hawaii’s 162,000 public school students are already receiving in-person instruction at least part of the time, according to the Department of Education. The rest are still learning at home due to parent preference, according to Kishimoto.

She said schools must still provide an online learning option for kids until there is more universal administration of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Parents have to still have a choice until we have an inoculation program that gets to a point of safety where we feel somewhat closer to what the flu vaccine is like,” she said.

Complicated Relationship

The Hawaii State Teachers Association also has been very vocal about allowing teachers to telework and keeping classes virtual, although the union’s president signaled optimism last week that increased vaccination of teachers would allow more kids to start returning to the classroom.

The two sides have frequently clashed during the pandemic, including a row in July when the DOE suggested that desks could be safely spaced just 3 feet apart if kids were all facing forward, prompting howls of protest.

We haven’t always agreed on all the steps or when the timing (is right) and so forth,” Kishimoto said of her relationship to the union that represents 13,500 teachers. “I don’t think we all need to agree all the time, but we do need to be willing to make sure that students are first, that schools are open, that we’re paying attention to what’s happening with kids.”

So far, 52% of roughly 11,000 teachers who responded to an HSTA survey said they had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. On Maui and Kauai, the number of teachers getting fully vaccinated has reached the hundreds, per the survey breakdown.

Calls to more fully reopen schools — playing out across the country, where in some states teachers are not high on the vaccine priority list — is picking up steam in light of the recently updated CDC guidance.

President Joe Biden also made it a goal to reopen a majority of schools during his first 100 days in office, although his administration has been criticized for conflicting messages about what that meant.

Hawaii has seen a continuing downward trend of new daily coronavirus cases in recent days.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz told Civil Beat in an interview Wednesday he believes it’s possible for schools to safely reopen by the fourth quarter, which begins in mid-March.

“I think there is a realistic pathway for schools to be increasing the in-person attendance with the goal towards schools being fully functional in the conventional sense by the fourth quarter of this academic year,” the Hawaii Democrat said.

Schatz said he has had conversations with both the state teachers’ union and with Gov. David Ige, and said he has “not heard any deal breakers so far.”

The DOE has stopped short of issuing a broader mandate to schools to reopen. Kishimoto has said it is up to each school complex area and principal to decide what instructional model is best for their community. But she acknowledged the hardships on kids when schools are not open.

“I would ideally like to have especially my elementary and middle schools reopened,” Kishimoto said at the editorial board meeting. “And we also know that our middle schoolers are often home taking care of younger siblings with parents needing to get back to work.

“We’re creating hardships by not reopening schools fully,” she said. “So we recognize that. But we also know that from a mental health perspective, it’s not a good thing for kids to be isolated from one another. So I’m very, very concerned about that.”

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