On the eve of the official start of the new school year, state leaders said that classes would resume as scheduled on Tuesday, with several safety measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Doors will open despite a surge in coronavirus cases driven by a highly transmissible variant. But educators and health officials said a year and a half of distance learning was tough on Hawaii’s students and it’s time to get them back in class.

“We feel right now the benefit to kids being back in school far exceeds the risk. And part of that is because we have so many layers of mitigation,” state Department of Health Director Libby Char said Monday at a joint press conference with Gov. David Ige and interim superintendent Keith Hayashi.

Governor David Ige speaks during press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Gov. David Ige speaks during a press conference at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Concerns are high that the reopening of campuses for full in-person learning may be too dangerous since children under 12 aren’t eligible for the coronavirus vaccines.

Char said that delaying the reopening would do little to curb the spread of the virus.

“There will be an inevitable rise in cases no matter when we reopen the schools,” she said during the press conference at a Honolulu middle school. “It just has to deal with getting 180,000 people back on campus.”

Officials acknowledged the anxiety about reopening schools in full in-person mode after a record number of positive cases last week. But they expressed confidence that safety measures in place would be sufficient to protect students.

No Delays

The remarks reflected a steadfast commitment to getting students back to in-person learning.

On Sunday, Maui’s Mayor Mike Victorino said he was asking the state to postpone the return to classroom learning, saying “I believe it is wiser to err on the side of caution.”

Ige said Monday that he had spoken to Victorino and had no plans to change course.

“We do believe that it’s important that our students on each island and in every county have the opportunity to return to in-person learning,” the governor said.

The determination marked a big departure from this time last year when a COVID-19 surge and pressure from parents and the teachers’ union caused education officials to delay the reopening from Aug. 4 to Aug. 17, then to order students to begin in all-distance learning mode out of health and safety concerns.

With vaccines now readily available, officials offered reassurances that safety measures are in place and urged everyone not yet vaccinated to get a shot.

“Please, don’t delay,” Ige said, emphasizing the need to follow other protocols such as wearing masks, frequently washing hands and staying home when feeling unwell.

“These are the things we all can do in order to help our children go back to in person learning safely and healthily,” he said, adding it will “take an entire community to make in person learning safe for 165,000 students.”

The state recently achieved a 60% vaccination rate for eligible people, although the rates vary widely from community to community.

Department of Health Director Elizabeth Char speaks during press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Department of Health Director Elizabeth Char speaks during a press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Officials have not implemented a vaccine mandate for Hawaii’s 257 public schools. But Char said there was no threshold of positive case numbers per school or complex area that would trigger a return to full distance learning.

Hayashi, whose term began Sunday after the departure of former Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, said all schools are “strictly adhering” to safety protocols and mitigation strategies but acknowledged cases would likely still occur.

“We are still in a pandemic and continue to operate as such. We know a rise in cases is expected as we bring more students back to campus, because schools are a reflection of their communities,” he said.

Concerns Remain

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,500 teachers, said the concerns of parents and educators had not been given as much consideration in this push to fully reopen schools.

“What we can’t understand is that transmission is so much higher than last year, but lots of contingencies are being removed, like making sure students are socially distanced or the use of shields during meals,” HSTA President Osa Tui Jr. said during a conference call with reporters.

In the latest estimation from Friday’s 622 positive case count, children accounted for 25% of those cases, Char said.

Tui called that figure “extremely worrisome.”

“Sadly, just saying schools are safe places does not make it so,” he said, adding that parents are free to “exercise your right to keep your children home until you feel it is safe.”

Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School 6th grade teacher Corrie Izumoto’s classroom with physically distanced desks.
Kawananakoa Middle School sixth grade teacher Corrie Izumoto’s classroom with physically distanced desks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Some parents say they’re ready to send their kids back to school as the pandemic shows no sign of ending.

“I feel it’s here to stay and we all have to live with it,” Candice Nakamura, a parent of three, ages 8, 11 and 13, said. “We have to face it and deal with it. If these masks work like they say they do there should be no hesitation in opening up our schools.”

Other parents are more wary.

“The schools were never shut because they weren’t the best place for kids to learn. There was a deadly virus. And there still is,” said Christy Yee, a kindergarten teacher and parent of an entering first grader at Manoa Elementary.

Yee, who teaches at a Kalihi-area elementary school, said she will still be sending her 6-year-old to class because she is “very confident about the school’s protocols,” calling its communication and protocols “impeccable.”

At Kawananakoa Middle School, where Monday’s press conference was held inside a spacious, air-conditioned auditorium, Principal Ronnie Victor said she’s ready to welcome all 600 students back to the campus on Tuesday.

The Grade 6-8 school saw only 200 students return by the spring of last school year so it will be a new start for the school.

Only eight families have requested going onto a distance learning plan, Victor said. Distance plans also will look different this year, with Kawananakoa relying on a self-directed K12/Stride Learning Solutions plan monitored by a curriculum coordinator with a once a week check-in.

Victor said she is not allowed to ask how many of her 41-person staff are vaccinated, but she’s encouraging parents to get their age-eligible children vaccinated.

The school will open windows in classrooms while lines are painted around the campus to indicate 6-feet distances.

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