Student-athletes and athletic staff in Hawaii’s public high schools must receive full vaccinations by Sept. 24 to participate in sports this school year, the Hawaii Department of Education announced Wednesday.

Additionally, the DOE said it was pushing back the start of the fall athletic season until Sept. 24 in light of the state’s recent spike in positive COVID-19 cases. This timeframe will also allow eligible individuals to get fully inoculated, the DOE said in a news release.

The new requirement follows the University of Hawaii’s decision to also require vaccinations for student athletes, per a July 29 email circulated to student-athletes, coaches and staff, UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said.

“UH Manoa student-athletes must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in intercollegiate athletics,” he said. “As with other UH Manoa health clearance requirements, students will be able to request exemptions for medical and religious reasons.”

Health officials reported 346 new cases and the seven-day positivity rate jumped to 6.5% on Wednesday. That raised Hawaii’s total to 43,962, with 538 deaths, since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Campbell HS female hurdlers run on the dirt track located around their football field. Informally asked where they changed their clothes, most said a G building had access until the custodian closed the bathroom and others changed in girls bathrooms because of the lack of a girls locker room.
High school athletes have until Sept. 24 to get fully inoculated in order to participate in sports this school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The announcement about school sports comes the week Hawaii’s 257 public schools reopened to students for full in-person instruction. There is no vaccination mandate for the public schools; Wednesday’s action would carve out an exception for all student athletes, coaches and volunteers.

An individual who got a first shot by Aug. 20 and a second dose by Sept. 10 would be fully vaccinated by Sept. 24, under Pfizer’s two-dose schedule.

Anyone not fully vaccinated by Sept. 24 cannot participate in school athletics, though students or adults can ask for a religious or medical exemption verified by a licensed physician, the DOE said. Exempt individuals would have to undergo a COVID-19 test twice a week.

Only those 12 and up are currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Like the rest of the nation, Hawaii has seen a coronavirus surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant, heightening concerns about a slowdown in the pace of vaccinations. The vaccination rate for the islands stood at 60.4% on Wednesday.

The new cases included 223 on Oahu, 63 on the Big Island, 29 on Maui, five on Kauai and 26 diagnosed out of state.

The official high school athletic season was officially set to begin this week for most fall sports, including volleyball, cross-country, air riflery and cheerleading. The exception is football, which kicked off the week of July 19.

In a statement, interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said the vaccination mandate for athletes “was not made lightly. But we cannot jeopardize the health and safety of our students and communities …

“The alternative is canceling the season outright, which we don’t want to have to do; so we are implementing this layered plan that prioritizes vaccinations as the best way to protect against and reduce the exposure to COVID-19.”

Vaccine Mandates Differ Across Schools

The issue of school-based vaccination mandates has been handled differently by the private and public school systems.

Some Hawaii private schools, which don’t start the new school year until later this month, have chosen to institute a vaccination mandate for eligible students and staff.

The K-12 Iolani School in Honolulu, which starts Aug. 24, is requiring vaccines for eligible students in grades 7 through 12 and for all staff, but allowing medical exemptions.

Parker School, a K-12 school in Waimea, Hawaii island, which begins the school year Aug. 10, said it would require vaccinations for all eligible students and staff by Oct. 1.

Additionally, those under 12 will have to complete the vaccination process within 60 days of the vaccine being authorized for that age group. The approval date has not yet been determined.

The school is also going to test all students and staff before the school year begins and provide weekly COVID-19 testing “while infection rates remain high on island,” Parker School said in a press release.

“The safety and well-being of our students, employees, and families remains one of our highest priorities,” Stephen Dunn, the head of school, said.

In higher education, BYU-Hawaii said it would be adding the vaccine to its “student health clearance requirements” for the fall semester, which begins Sept. 1, and will help facilitate vaccinations for students who can’t get one before arriving on the Laie campus.

The University of Hawaii also recently reimposed its student vaccine requirement, though it said in a July 23 statement it “will not administratively disenroll unvaccinated students from any face-to-face or hybrid classes.” Unvaccinated students on campus will be subject to weekly mandatory testing.

In an earlier news release, UH cited a survey taken in late June that indicated 92% of students and 95% of staff across the 10-campus system had received vaccinations, or planned to do so.

“Students who desire a full campus experience should be vaccinated,” UH said in a July 23 statement.

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