A public charter school in Waianae is returning to all-distance learning for at least three weeks starting Wednesday after several students and staff members tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days.

All students at Kamaile Academy Public Charter School will shift to virtual learning, with an anticipated return to school on Sept. 13, principal Paul Kepka told parents in a letter sent Monday.

“We are very concerned about the number of students who are needing to quarantine at home as well as the increased potential for COVID 19 spread on campus,” he said.

Lanai High and Elementary School signs during COVID-19 pandemic.
The first day of the new school year for public school students was Aug. 3. Principals have been sending letters when there is a positive student or staff case. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The sudden shift to remote instruction by Kamaile Academy following the return of all students to campuses on Aug. 3 is one of the first known instances of a Hawaii public school pivoting to virtual instruction this school year due to health concerns posed by the pandemic.

At least six other charter schools, including two on Big Island, have also temporarily returned to distance learning due to positive Covid cases, according to a KHON report.

Kamaile will host a virtual town hall on Thursday evening to address any questions and concerns from school families, according to the letter.

Kamaile is a public charter school so it has its own governing board and considerably more leeway in running school operations, unlike a traditional public school bound by the administrative strictures of the state Department of Education.

“What you see now is our public charter school Governing Boards exercising their oversight and judgment for what is best for their students, school, and communities,” said Yvonne Lau, interim executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission, the authorizer of these schools.

According to its website, the Waianae Coast-situated school is a Hawaiian-focused, arts-integrated conversion charter school where 78% of students have economic hardship; 59% of students are Native Hawaiian; and 14% of students are homeless.

Its enrollment count is 893 in preschool through 12th grade.

The west side of Hawaii, which includes Waianae, shows one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, according to state Department of Health data, with a rate of 35% or less.

The school is also the site of a weekly Covid-19 testing pilot program through the DOH, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and Pacific Alliance Against COVID-19.

The decision to suspend physical classes at Kamaile reflects the precarious environment in Hawaii after roughly 165,000 students returned to physical school campuses as the highly contagious delta variant drives an increase in coronavirus cases around the state.

On Friday, the DOE said there were 325 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at schools for the week-long period spanning Aug. 7 through Aug. 13, a threefold increase from the week prior. Fifty of those cases were among students, including 35 elementary and 15 secondary students, and 20 staff cases.

The DOE’s weekly case count does not include 37 public charter schools around the state.

Lau said all charter schools have been directed to report confirmed positive cases to the commission, which will report this to the DOE and state Board of Education.

“We have been getting media requests and are now providing our numbers at the end of every week pending the schoolʻs notification of their families and communities first,” she said.

State health officials have cautioned that the return of students and staff to schools will invariably bump up the number of positive Covid cases associated with these places but have insisted that mitigation protocols are able to keep these cases at bay.

“(Schools) have identified a number of cases but it has primarily been people who have been infected at home and then are coming to school or work,” state health director Libby Char said Friday during a joint press conference with the governor.

“The good thing is the DOE’s mechanism is catching these people, identifying them and then helping to keep them off-campus or from spreading within the campus,” she added.

Principals across the state have been sending notices to parents when there is a positive case associated with the school campus.

Monday’s notice from Kamaile’s principal followed a succession of case alerts sent soon after the first day of school, including an Aug. 6 notice about a positive student case; an Aug. 12 notice about another student case; and an Aug. 16 letter about a positive staff member case.

Since last Friday, Kamaile has had seven students and two staff members test positive for Covid-19, according to the school’s governing board chairwoman Pualani Akaka. She said classrooms have been closed and there are 140 students in quarantine, plus 90 additional students “considered close contacts.”

“Nearly one-third of the student body is absent from school which is suspected due to Covid-related reasons,” she said. “There is some concern that the transmission of Covid may be occurring on campus.”

“The temporary closure will allow the spread to slow down and give the school time to prepare for the current, unexpected spike,” she added.

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