Early dismissal so staff can sanitize classrooms, intricate schedules and spreading kids into every corner of the room are among the COVID-19 prevention measures taken by elementary schools as education officials strive to get all students back on campus as soon as possible.

With 174 elementary schools statewide serving roughly 94,000 children in grades K-6, the reopening models and timing of students’ return differ from place to place.

But with the fourth quarter underway as of March 22, the resumption of in-person learning by many elementary schools amid the pandemic offers a preview of what the “new normal” may look like and how the school structure may be irrevocably altered.

Hahaione Elementary sign.
Hahaione Elementary in Hawaii Kai was one of the first public schools to fully reopen amid the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“So far, so good, knock on wood. You never know because people do things outside of school,” Hahaione Elementary parent Jeff Lum said.

His son, Noah, is back as a full-time fourth grader. Classrooms are not allowed to mingle, masks are mandatory and plastic barriers are erected around desks.

“We try to keep all the protocols in place. Even when he has playdates (at home), he wears a mask,” Lum said.

Many public schools began easing students out of pandemic-era distance learning with a hybrid style of online and in-person instruction as early as last year, but the groups returning to campus were relatively small.

That changed following urgent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February that K-12 schools could and ought to reopen with the proper safety protocols in place. The state Department of Education raised hopes for a full reopening of all elementary schools by this quarter, though Superintendent Christina Kishimoto recently said the halls at all grade levels were not expected to be full until next year.

Middle and high schools still rely heavily on virtual learning, despite early signs based on the first semester that many Hawaii high schoolers weren’t on track to get the necessary credits to graduate on time.

“At least the kids are back in class, and we work around it.” — Teacher Rexann Dubiel

Principal letters to families and memos posted on school websites communicate an array of new protocols, from detailed schedules indicating which sets of students should be on campus to minimize crowding to reminders to keep kids home when they feel unwell.

They also seek to reassure parents that kids can safely be brought to campus due to relatively low daily COVID-19 case counts in the islands, widespread availability of vaccines for teachers and the fact that no DOE facility has been the source of community transmission to date.

“We’re excited that everyone who wanted a vaccine at this point has gotten the vaccine,” Kishimoto told Hawaii Public Radio on Thursday.

But schools have had to be creative to accommodate more students with demands for maintaining safe distances to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

At Sunset Beach Elementary on Oahu’s North Shore, administrators have even changed the structure of the special education program to more fully utilize all teachers.

In order to keep classroom size under 16 kids, the school has integrated special education students into general education classrooms, turning them into inclusion classrooms and allowing the special ed teachers to take on more students overall.

Classes are also dismissed an hour earlier than usual each day to allow staff to scrub down rooms.

“That’s a whole day of teaching, but that’s OK, it works,” said third-grade teacher Rexann Dubiel. “At least the kids are back in class, and we work around it.”

Staff also utilize outdoor space as much as possible and turn to things like shark stickers on cafeteria benches and slippers painted on the ground to keep kids at least 6 feet apart.

Lanai High and Elementary School with socially distanced desks and plastic COVID-19 barriers.
Many elementary schools, like the one on Lanai, are setting up plastic barriers around desks, another mitigation strategy beyond mandatory masks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

They’re also adhering to a 6-foot distancing rule between desks, although the most recent CDC guidance says at least 3 feet of spacing is adequate as long as masks are worn.

Dubiel has placed tables between cubbies and desks. “I have kids in the very back corners of the room,” she said.

The school, which has about 390 students enrolled, has welcomed back all students since early December.

“It has been a team effort for sure, and every single staff member has had to take on additional responsibilities such as covering lunches, helping with smaller groups at recess and assisting with sanitizing throughout the day,” Sunset’s principal, Eliza Elkington, wrote in an email.

Some Schools Have to Stay Hybrid

The DOE said it is still working to determine how many of its 257 total schools have returned to full in-person instruction so it’s difficult to determine what the pace of reopening is statewide, especially in more economically disadvantaged and rural communities where virtual learning has been a particular challenge.

“Once the information has been collected, the Department plans to publish a dashboard with the current school models for all campuses,” spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said in an email.

Some schools have been unable to accommodate larger classes even with the less stringent spacing guidelines from the CDC, forcing them to remain online at least part time.

At Princess Victoria Kaiulani Elementary, a Kalihi-area school whose student body is 40% Micronesian and 27% Filipino, all students are back for in-person instruction except the third grade, which will remain in blended learning this quarter due to its large class size, according to a letter to parents from principal Alan Lee.

At Waipahu Elementary, a school that also has many Filipino and Micronesian students and has confronted high chronic absenteeism in recent years, most teachers are simultaneously conducting in-person and online classes for kids, according to vice principal James Suster.

“Most teachers have between 7-10 students coming in daily with the rest of the students (roughly 8-12) logging in online,” he said via email. “We are definitely not open for all students as we cannot abide by the 3-foot distancing and fit everyone in all classes, and we definitely would not be able to do 6-foot distancing when students are eating.”

Suster said all students are able to participate thanks to Google Meet or Google Classroom, but being physically in the classroom goes a long way.

“Having them in school is more about providing them a proper environment to learn because the home situation is not conducive to learning,” he said.

Waipahu Elementary School VP James Suster stands next to a mural painted by Waipahu artist Jesse Velasquez.
Vice Principal James Suster said even with the more relaxed 3-foot spacing guidelines from CDC, Waipahu Elementary cannot accommodate a full return of all students to campus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

School leaders have been given freedom to make individual decisions on bringing back students to campus.

Kauai has a broader directive. All elementary schools will be open to all students, while there will be “continued blended learning” for the middle and high school grades, according to a March 8 letter by the complex area superintendent, Paul Zina.

Interviews with parents, teachers and administrators indicate the return to campus has been fairly seamless and incident-free thus far, aligning with data and studies showing schools don’t cause widespread COVID-19 transmission.

According to Hawaii’s education department, there have been 632 total cases affiliated with the DOE from June 26, 2020 through last week.

Mitigating Risk

Schools have developed protocols for dealing with positive cases, including notifying close contacts, professionally cleaning and disinfecting impacted areas and sharing information with the Department of Health, Kalani said. In instances where a positive COVID-19 case was associated with a school campus, the DOE has said no school closure was necessary.

State health officials insist the risk among school children is relatively low.

Kids “tend to get less ill than adults” and are “not a major source of transmission to each other,” state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said in a March 10 Zoom town hall hosted by state Rep. Gene Ward.

She also said elementary schools are less likely to seed transmission than high schools, since younger kids can stay in the same class throughout the day unlike the more frequent mixing of older students between classes.

Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, says kids tend to get less ill than adults and aren’t a major source of transmission of COVID-19. Eleni Avendaño/Civil Beat/2020

“To me, it’s not really about trying to find the perfect solution,” Kemble said on that call. “It’s how to solve the situation so that each school can get back to that full in-person learning.”

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, once a vocal opponent to bringing students back in person until it was safer to do so, noted in an email it had “not heard of any major problems on campuses” leading into the fourth quarter.

Schools must still accommodate parents who want to keep their kids at home this year, and that means continuing with pre-scripted online curricula like Acellus in many cases, though the Board of Education has mandated the program be phased out by the end of the year due to problematic content uncovered early on.

Oahu’s Red Hill Elementary, which serves a large military family population, is relying on software like Wonders, Thinking Maps, Singapore Math, Discovery Education and iReady to serve distance learners, according to a memo sent out to families.

The distance learning plan “will rely heavily on families to support your child in completing assignments and keeping up with the acquisition of content and standards,” it said.

Despite the challenges, it appears that virtual education is likely to extend to the next academic year in some form.

Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, the state’s largest with enrollment over 3,000, will offer a full distance-learning option for select students in the fall, with dedicated online courses taught by Campbell teachers.

For this option, the school is prioritizing students with at least a 3.0 grade point average, the ability to work independently, a commitment to do distance learning for the whole year and a reliable computer and high speed Internet connection.

“While distance learning has not been beneficial or optimal for everyone we recognize that for a certain population of our students they have thrived with this format,” principal Jon Henry Lee said in an email. “As long as there is an interest we envision this being part of our school for the foreseeable future.”

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