About 43% of Hawaii’s teachers have received at least one dose of vaccine against COVID-19 as of this week, the head of the state teachers’ union said Friday, adding that leads to “larger possibilities of more students returning” to the classroom.

The optimistic assessment came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its most forceful guidance about the reopening of schools for in-person learning, saying it can be done safely as long as proper safety measures are in place.

The CDC stressed the need for the usual protocols including wearing masks, hand washing, disinfection of school facilities and maintaining a safe distance from other people. It said teacher vaccinations would add an additional layer of protection but didn’t deem them essential.

Ala Wai Elementary School student 3rd grader Azurae Sildora sits behind her plastic barrier during COVID-19 pandemic.
Many schools, like Ala Wai Elementary, have begun bringing smaller groups of kids back to class with safety barriers in place. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Nearly one year into the pandemic, more is known about youth’s susceptibility to the coronavirus. Science indicates that younger kids, in particular, carry less risk of in-school transmission than older kids and adults, the CDC said.

The agency also emphasized that lack of in-person schooling could hit disadvantaged communities and racial minorities harder due to lack of home support, so school reopening plans should consider those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services,” the CDC guidance stated, providing more clarity since the guidelines were last updated in December.

“If mitigation strategies are strictly adhered to, K-12 schools can safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” it added.

Schools were forced to go to a system of distance learning without much preparation when the pandemic began spreading last year. Many began offering in-person classes, to some degree, late last year, but the implementation has been haphazard.

Schools Currently Get To Choose

In Hawaii, for example, the decision is left to the individual schools and reopening models are all over the map.

Some 74% of DOE’s 162,000 students statewide are “spending all or part of their instructional time on campus,” Krislyn Yano, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said in an email Friday.

The DOE didn’t break down the data, but statistics available through December show that as of the end of the first semester, just 12% of elementary students, or 9,075 kids, were back on campus full-time. That figure was 5%, or 1,654 students, for middle schoolers and just 2%, or 932 students, for high schoolers.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents the state’s 13,500 teachers, had been strongly opposed to bringing kids back into the classroom until coronavirus case numbers were down to safer levels and schools could ensure that proper safety mechanisms were in place.

The union’s president Corey Rosenlee, who said as recently as last month that many schools lacked sufficient protection, was more optimistic during a call with reporters on Friday but criticized a lack of data.

“The DOE has always left it up to individual principals,” he said, of reopening plans. “We literally have two schools in the same area — where one is hybrid and one is distant (learning) — and one of the frustrations is that there should be good data.”

However, he welcomed momentum in the vaccination of teachers in the islands.

HSTA said teacher vaccination data collected as this week indicates that 41% of 11,000 teachers who responded to a survey indicated they’d received the first dose; nearly 11% had received a second dose; and 16% have a pending appointment for a first dose. Just 1.6% of the respondents said they would not ever want to get the vaccination.

“We believe that in the next few weeks, many of our teachers will get vaccinated,” said Rosenlee. “Once that occurs, and the metrics in Hawaii remain low, and the other (CDC) recommendations are (followed), I think that definitely opens up larger possibilities of more students returning.”

Safety Measures Required

The CDC said mask wearing and keeping at least 6 feet of distance between students were mandatory for reopening. Beyond that, it urged broader COVID-19 testing of teachers and students and vaccinations for teachers and school staff “as soon as supply allows.”

Health officials also advised bundling students into cohorts or pods throughout the day to minimize interactions, although this would reduce the number of students who could come back to class on any given day.

Some Hawaii teachers have said the mandatory 6-feet spacing between desks would only allow so many students in their rooms at any given time.

The CDC also recommended that communities look at the total number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven-day period to measure community transmission and that virtual online instruction still be provided to those who are at increased risk of severe illness.

“K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” the guidance stated.

So far, the DOE has reported 497 total COVID-19 cases tied to school campuses between June and Feb. 5. The department is still only breaking down the new cases according to each of the state’s 15 complex areas without naming the specific school where a positive case originated.

Earlier this week, the Hawaii Senate Education Committee moved forward a bill that would require the DOE to include school-level data on positive COVID-19 cases to help guide parents’ decisions about sending their kids back to school.

The DOE said that would raise privacy concerns.

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