The Hawaii Department of Education is not making any immediate changes to its mask-wearing policy for students and staff following updated guidance Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends lifting mask-wearing requirements at K-12 campuses for those fully vaccinated.

School officials said they would defer to the Hawaii Department of Health on specific statewide guidance.

“As we have seen with previous national guidance, not all of it is applied to Hawaii’s COVID-19 safe reopening plans due to the uniqueness of our island state’s situation,” DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said in an email.

The CDC’s Friday update urged schools to fully reopen by the new school year, saying it benefits kids. It was the latest education-related guidance issued since the agency said it was OK to space desks 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet in March. The CDC maintained the 3-foot distancing guidance between desks but said when that’s not possible schools can implement other mitigation strategies like enforcing masks among unvaccinated students.

Ala Wai Elementary School student 3rd grader Azurae Sildora sits behind her plastic barrier during COVID-19 pandemic.
Ala Wai Elementary School third-grader Azurae Sildora sits behind her plastic barrier. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union which represents 13,500 teachers in the state, urged state education officials to be more circumspect around the new CDC guidance.

“It’s in the best interest of everyone to wear masks when they are indoors until we reach herd immunity,” HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. said in a statement. In a call with reporters afterward, Tui elaborated that it’s best to keep the rule consistent since “right now, school personnel will have no way of knowing who is or who is not vaccinated.”

Hawaii’s statewide public school system will be among the first U.S. school districts to welcome students back for the new school year when class resumes Aug. 3. Per Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s directive, all schools will bring students back for in-person learning. The outgoing DOE chief, whose term ends at the end of the month, told Board of Education officials in June that safety protocols will “remain at status quo” for now, unless the state DOH changes its guidance.

Sarah Kemble, acting Hawaii state epidemiologist, didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

For now, all students and staff must wear masks both indoors and outdoors, except to take limited mask breaks when outside.

Right now, vaccinations are currently only available to those 12 and up, although Pfizer is expected to apply for emergency use authorization for vaccines for kids 5 to 11 by this fall.

The Hawaii DOE does not keep any data on approximately how many of its 87,000 eligible middle and high school students are vaccinated.

Chambers said the department does not require parents to submit verification of vaccination status for students, but added that it is collecting vaccination information for those vaccinated at a school site. She said there might be “circumstances such as Safe Travel requirements and close contact tracing where schools have asked for this information.”

Also on Friday, per a new state law, the DOE began reporting more detailed information on positive COVID-19 cases reported at schools. There were three reported positive cases in the past week.

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