The Hawaii Department of Education requires that students who are not vaccinated and travel outside the state provide a negative test result to their school upon arrival back on the islands, or else quarantine for 10 days before returning to class.

The policy has been in place since July, and the DOE recently reinforced it in an updated Oct. 8 memo, shortly before schools recessed for a weeklong fall break.

“The Department of Education has its own protocol for students returning from out of state,” said spokeswoman Nanea Kalani. “The added layer of protection is needed because we are prioritizing in-person learning, and 6 feet of separation may not always be maintained throughout the school day.”

However, the requirements have placed additional burdens on some families, especially those living in remote areas, as children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to get a Covid-19 shot.

Aliiolani Elementary School student carries their school supplies on the first day of school.
The DOE fall break was held the week of Oct. 11. State traveler data shows the number of returning resident arrivals to Hawaii spiked in the days immediately before kids returned to school. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Free testing sites and clinics are not as readily available in some parts of the state, and the DOE said self-tests taken at home aren’t acceptable.

“Rapid tests are almost impossible to get on the Big Island and cost $175 a test unless you have had exposure,” said Terri Richards, who had to keep her 7-year-old twins home from Waimea Elementary for several days last week — causing her to miss work — after the family went on a cruise outside Hawaii.

Under the DOE policy, fully vaccinated students need not test upon returning to the state, so long as they provided proof of their vaccination to school officials.

But unvaccinated students need to show proof of a negative test after returning to the state — as well as show proof of a pre-travel test result — or else stay home for 10 days.

That’s in addition to Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, which requires unvaccinated people to obtain a negative Covid test at least 72 hours prior to the final leg of their trip in order to bypass a 10-day quarantine.

Richards’ family ended up spending close to $1,000 just on Covid testing to comply with both Safe Travels and the DOE rules following their trip. She and her husband are vaccinated, but the twins are not yet eligible.

Richards said she also had to travel to Kona — about an hour-and-a-half long drive for her — just to find an available test site for her kids that provided rapid results.

The available options for families are more clearly laid out in this flowchart prepared by the University of Hawaii Manoa Nursing School and the DOE.

DOE employees returning from a trans-Pacific trip, meanwhile, are “encouraged but not required” to take a Covid test three to five days after they return to Hawaii, regardless of vaccination status, according to the Oct. 8 memo. Unvaccinated DOE staff are still subject to a weekly testing mandate that was imposed on all state and county workers in Hawaii.

The Food and Drug Administration said Friday that smaller doses of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine are safe and effective for children. The agency plans a public meeting next week to debate the issue, which could clear the way for approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think it’s likely that it will be approved and that we will be seeing vaccinations for kids ages 5 to 11 by early November,” Hawaii Department of Health Director Libby Char said Friday during the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” show. “We’ve been planning for months on that eventuality.”

There are an estimated 119,473 children in the 5 to 11 age group in Hawaii, or 8.4% of the state population, according to DOH. To date, 70.7% of the state’s total population of 1.4 million is now vaccinated.

Some public schools are offering free PCR Covid testing to students and staff through a federally funded program, although the rollout has gotten off to a slow start due to the lack of staff or volunteers to assist.

Additionally, some neighbor island schools have begun offering rapid antigen tests through the National Kidney Foundation in a program offered through the CDC.

According to Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr, 67 of 108 neighbor island schools have indicated an interest in holding rapid testing on campus. So far, 42 schools have begun testing while 10 more are scheduled to start next week, he said.

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