Iolani School, a $25,000-per-year private school in Honolulu, was one of the first to reopen for in-person instruction in September, when most public schools were still limited to remote learning.

Months later, the K-12 school has more progress to report. More than 90% of its full-time staff has been vaccinated against the coronavirus or has an appointment to get a shot. Iolani also plans to soon begin testing for COVID-19 on campus after buying 20,000 rapid antigen test kits, officials said.

The school purchased the tests directly from Abbott Laboratories. “In general, the cost for the tests and setting up testing is between $100,000 and $200,000,” school spokeswoman Michelle Hee said in an email to Civil Beat on Monday.

Distanced Learning with DOE Chromebook computer during COVID-19 pandemic.
Iolani School hopes a high teacher vaccination rate and free COVID-19 testing will allow more student activities soon. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Iolani’s quick vaccination turnaround and soon-to-launch free COVID-19 testing on campus highlights the marked contrast in the level of resources between private and public schools in Hawaii, with many public schools only opening their doors for students to return to the classroom in the second semester.

Even within the network of private schools, Iolani’s progress in safeguarding itself against coronavirus transmission stands out. Earl Kim, head of the PreK-12 school, Le Jardin Academy, said 39% of his faculty and staff have gotten at least the first shot so far.

“Medical practices aside, I think every school in Hawaii deserves a lot of credit for the way in which they rapidly responded to a major disruption in practice,” Kim wrote in an email.

Without providing specifics, Punahou, another K-12 private school on Oahu, said in a statement that many of its faculty and staff “already have received at least one of their two shots and our expectation is that we will have a very high percentage of employees fully vaccinated soon.”

Punahou spokesman Robert Gelber also said the school will be rolling out a voluntary testing program for K-12 families and already has begun rapid antigen testing for staff and students participating in certain athletic programs.

Iolani, which has 2,116 students and 218 full-time teachers, has also created grade-level pods to restrict student movement, altered traffic flow in buildings and hired new teachers and proctors to assist with hybrid learning for kids who still prefer online instruction.

Resources have allowed Iolani and other private schools to largely fulfill reopening guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes some measures like 6-foot spacing between desks that would be hard for overcrowded public schools to meet.

The federal public safety agency also stressed the importance of vaccinations of teachers and COVID-19 testing.

A Step Ahead

Iolani has received a permit from the State Clinical Labs that was needed to enable its own nurses to administer the rapid COVID-19 tests on campus, according to a recent letter to parents from the head of the school, Tim Cottrell.

“These accomplishments were made possible thanks to the expertise we have among our staff as well as assistance from leaders in our alumni community. This is going to be very beneficial as we slowly reintroduce some school activities,” Cottrell said in the letter.

He stressed that teachers and students will still be required to wear face masks and shields, and adhere to other safety measures, during the school day.

“As I am sure you understand, we don’t want to create an environment where the virus is more easily spread within the student body and then potentially taken home to families,” he said.

Iolani has many influential figures in its community, including the chair of the school’s Board of Governors, Mark Mugiishi, who is chief executive of Hawaii Medical Service Association and a member of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. Lt. Gov. Josh Green is also a school parent.

Green, an emergency room physician, told Civil Beat Monday he supports the COVID-19 testing at Iolani, saying it is “a key to staying open even when cases exist in the community.”

The Hawaii Department of Education said it could not provide an independent tally of how many of its 13,500 teachers have begun the vaccination process. In an email, spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said that the state Department of Health does not report administered vaccinations by job category and that “medical privacy laws prevent the HIDOE from asking our employees whether they have been vaccinated.”

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, though, recently surveyed its members independently, finding that 52% of 11,000 respondents had received at least one shot of the vaccine.

Getting a vaccine is not mandatory for teachers. Hee said Iolani is “regularly checking in with our faculty and staff” on that front and is not aware of anyone who is declining the shot.

Kalani said she was not aware of any rapid testing program in the works by the DOE.

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