In updated guidance to schools released Monday, the Hawaii Department of Health urged all eligible students and staff to get COVID-19 vaccinations as a key factor to safely reopening schools for in-person instruction next week.

Education officials are moving forward with plans to bring kids back to classrooms despite a recent surge in coronavirus cases, largely driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

The new guidelines also relaxed requirements to wear face masks in most outdoor spaces for students and staff unless in crowded settings or activities that require close contact, but continued to mandate them indoors except when eating and drinking, in line with general statewide rules.

The update comes as Hawaii public schools prepare to welcome back about 160,000 students to campuses on Aug. 3, with many private schools expected to follow suit later in the month.

Holomua Elementary School 4th grade teacher, Mr. Suan, teaches students.
The state health guidance for schools comes about a week before the new school year begins on August 3 for DOE campuses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Vaccines are only available for children who are at least 12 years old, but the 24-page document, which was last updated in May, called them “the most important core essential strategy” for reopening.

It also stressed the need for hand washing, staying in small groups, staying home when sick and doing screening testing, especially for unvaccinated individuals participating in sports or extracurricular activity, to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Acting state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said the guidelines were premised on the understanding of negative long-term health impacts of kids not being in school and a “recognition that the science that has emerged around mitigation strategies has grown.”

“The emphasis is that schools have many options for layered mitigation strategies to maximize safety for full in-person learning,” she told reporters on Monday. “The goal is to move back to the in-person model.”

The DOH also said schools should implement physical distancing “to the extent possible” without prohibiting any in-person instruction should the recommendations not be met. The department cited new studies from the previous school year showing “low COVID-19 transmission levels” among students maintaining less than 6 feet of distance from others.

Still, the current recommendation is to try to keep students at least 3 feet apart from one another in classrooms and at least 6 feet of distance between students and staff. When that’s not possible, schools should implement “additional layered mitigation strategies to the extent possible,” the guidebook says.

The safety guidance follows a troubling new surge in coronavirus cases here and elsewhere in the U.S. spurred by the new delta variant.

“The goal is to move back to the in-person model.” — Acting state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble

But when asked about the variant’s impact on children under 12 who can’t get vaccinated yet, state health officials said the school setting still is not considered a widespread source of transmission when proper safety mechanisms are in place.

“We know that children under 12 can be infected with COVID-19 and are able to transmit COVID-19, though most risk of transmission comes from unvaccinated adults,” Kemble said. “I believe that having been on a campus, it has to do with how many layers of protection schools are doing. They’re not doing just one thing, they’re doing many things.”

Another change from the last update was an emphasis on washing hands or regularly using hand sanitizer instead of strict rules for cleaning and disinfecting common surfaces.

“In most situations, the risk of infection from touching surfaces is low,” the document says, adding that “cleaning once a day is usually enough to sufficiently remove potential virus that may be on surfaces.”

It also removed the section on reopening thresholds — or considerations for schools as they weigh distance or in-person learning — reflecting a commitment to full in-person learning.

Kemble said health officials anticipate some uptick in cases in schools as they reopen, but cases in the surrounding community also have to be monitored as part of any consideration of scaling back the in-person model.

“If we see an increase in outbreaks in schools, where we suspect transmissions are happening in younger age groups, that would be a reason to take a step back,” she said.

The new guidelines also took into consideration new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance released July 9.

The CDC said vaccinated children could safely attend school without wearing masks, while unvaccinated children 2 and up should continue to do so. The American Academy for Pediatrics in its own reopening guidelines is urging universal masking regardless of vaccine status.

Hawaii DOE said the indoor mask-wearing requirement will not be lifted.

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