Facing mounting pressure to get kids back in class, Hawaii education officials have announced a plan to fully reopen elementary schools later this month, a major milestone after a year of mostly remote instruction during the pandemic.

The state Department of Education said it hopes to have all elementary students attending school in-person on a daily basis when the fourth quarter of the school year begins on March 22.

The plan, which will be presented to the state Board of Education on Thursday, comes at a time when the number of coronavirus cases in the islands has been declining and many teachers have been vaccinated.

The DOE was less specific about middle and high schools, saying “all schools will work toward returning more students to campus daily.”

Manoa Elementary School sign welcomes back students to in person classes during COVID-19 pandemic.
A Manoa Elementary School sign welcomes students back to in-person classes. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The decision is in line with the latest guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that COVID-19 transmission is less likely among younger kids with proper safety protocols in place, including mask wearing and social distancing.

The plan did not explicitly say whether elementary parents who don’t want to send their kids back to the physical classroom will still have an option to receive online instruction, but many teachers already had been catering to both sets of students simultaneously.

The DOE plan notes that “schools will monitor and prepare for periodic shifts to remote learning when needed.”

Hawaii officials had expressed concern that classrooms have insufficient room for the mandated 6-feet distance between students.

“I think the local (Department of Health) needed to catch up with the CDC and make some of the adjustments around 6 feet and they’ve done that now,” Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne said in an interview with Civil Beat on Monday.

Calls to reopen schools have been growing amid fatigue from months of online learning and mounting evidence that the loss of in-person instruction has taken a heavy toll on students, especially younger kids who need the social interaction.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has emerged as a leading advocate, even organizing meetings over the past two Fridays for a group composed of school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, acting state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, state lawmakers and union leaders to discuss the state’s plan.

“Everybody who has been participating in these meetings is agreeing publicly and privately that we should move as aggressively as possible in the direction of opening up as many classrooms as possible,” the Hawaii Democrat said in a Monday interview.

Asked what his role in these talks was, the senator replied it was to help “facilitate and convene and troubleshoot and do a bit of shuttle diplomacy and get everyone working in the same direction.”

On Friday, one result of those collaborative talks emerged when Kemble wrote a two-page letter to Schatz and the DOE that reinforced the federal health guidelines around reopening schools.

“As we have learned more about COVID-19 and schools, we have also learned that schools are not, as initially anticipated, amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission,” Kemble wrote. “Rather, schools are one of the safest environments for children when it comes to COVID-19.”

Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, issued a letter Friday saying schools could implement other mitigation measures if they can’t feasibly maintain 6 feet of distance between students. Eleni Avendaño/Civil Beat/2020

Her letter went on to address the superintendent’s recently aired doubts about the ability of Hawaii schools to follow CDC guidance that children, to the greatest extent possible, be spaced 6 feet apart when in the classroom.

Kemble said the state health department’s guidance for DOE schools is “intentionally layered and flexible” and that local health officials realize 6 feet of distancing won’t be possible when bringing kids back to full capacity. Many elementary grades consist of up to 20 to 25 students in one classroom.

“We encourage those schools to implement all OTHER mitigation measures to the full extent possible, to provide a layered mitigation approach that will still maximize safety,” she wrote, including wearing masks indoors at all times, taking mask breaks only when outdoors and having students and staff interact in “designated cohorts, as much as possible, and with cohorts as small as is feasible.”

Many of Hawaii’s 257 public schools already have begun to gradually bring back students in phases for several months, but it’s not clear if any of these schools have actually been able to offer all kids in-person instruction daily. The DOE collects and publishes aggregate data but not individual school-level plans.

In elementary schools, 12% of students are participating in in-person learning, while just 5% of middle schoolers and 2% of high schoolers are doing so, according to the DOE PowerPoint. Overall, two-thirds of Hawaii’s approximately 162,370 public school students are doing some kind of blended learning.

Union Wants More Details

Even with the urgency of the newest federal guidance to open schools, many U.S. counties are still not prepared to bring all kids back, according to this New York Times analysis. Just one-sixth of all U.S. counties are qualified to bring all students back for full in-person learning under the guidance, which advises fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in a week and a seven-day positivity rate of less than 8%.

In a statement issued late Friday, Kishimoto said getting all DOE elementary kids back to campus by fourth quarter would require “tremendous planning and effort in a short amount of time to ensure any reopening plans continue to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff.”

“Our tri-level leadership team is exploring the viability of being able to safely open all, most or some of our elementary schools for daily in-person learning during the fourth quarter,” her statement read.

Efforts to reopen schools have faced strong pushback from teacher union officials.

Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, acknowledged Hawaii’s low COVID-19 case rate and progress toward getting an even higher percentage of teachers vaccinated by the end of spring break.

Still, he expressed some trepidation toward what he views as the DOE’s lack of details when it comes to this next phase.

“What accommodations are going to be made for parents that still want to do distance learning? Will these other mitigating factors be met?” he asked Monday during a reporter Zoom call.

Rosenlee made clear the union, which represents 13,500 teachers across Hawaii, was not objecting to this new target of bringing all younger kids back to campus after spring break, but said the DOE still needs to describe the plan.

“The realization is that our schools will open, but that our parents also have to have choices,” he said.

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