As the first half of the school year draws to a close, data from the Hawaii Department of Education is raising fears of a possible new Covid-19 surge as the daily coronavirus case count inches up after weeks of relatively low numbers.

The DOE reported 46 cases across 26 schools on Monday, according to the agency’s data dashboard. That’s the highest number since Nov. 15, when 26 cases were confirmed across 22 schools.

It was also the first time the number surpassed 40 since Oct. 4, when the delta variant was the prominent source of concern of community spread.

Now, health officials are worried about the omicron variant, which is believed to be more contagious although reports suggest it may also cause fewer hospitalizations and severe illness.

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi speaks during press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi will share some updated statistics with the Board of Education on Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The school-based numbers remain relatively low. The highest-ever Covid case count since the school year began in August with in-person classes was 182 cases among 100 schools on Aug. 23. In all, more than 4,550 cases have been reported in schools since July 3.

“We weren’t sure if we were at the beginning, middle or end (of the pandemic) and unfortunately when we thought it was going away, here we are again with omicron,” said Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. The DOE doesn’t provide information about which variant is to blame for school-based cases.

Overall, Hawaii has seen an uptick in cases with a positivity rate of 2.3% on Tuesday and an average of more than 152 cases per day over the past week, according to the DOH. The state reported 214 new cases on Tuesday, while the death toll stood at 1,058.

Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr said while he doesn’t have additional information about the school-based cases, the rise in case counts in Hawaii overall can be attributed to “the loosening of restrictions, the Thanksgiving holiday and the arrival of omicron.”

“We advise people to get vaccinated before attending holiday celebrations,” or take extra precautions like gathering outdoors rather than indoors or wearing masks when around people outside of one’s household, he said, adding a push for those eligible to get booster shots as well.

The DOE didn’t respond to a request for comment. Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi plans to provide updated statistics on caseloads, vaccination rates and other Covid-related issues to the Board of Education during a meeting on Thursday.

“In general this is what we were hoping would be more regularly done, but this is definitely something we’re happy to see — the DOE providing more information,” said Tui.

The last time the DOE updated the board on Covid-related data was two months ago.

Continued concerns over the coronavirus come as the state’s 257 public schools prepare for a two-week winter break starting Monday.

Fourth graders at Benjamin Parker Elementary are starting winter break early after students were told to quarantine for the rest of the quarter, according to a notice from a homeroom advisor posted in the Hawaii for a Safe Return to Schools Facebook group on Tuesday.

Continued Challenges

It’s been a challenging first few months with all students finally back on campus full-time after more than a year of distance learning that was imposed after the pandemic began in March 2020. In addition to Covid-19 cases, the DOE has suffered from shortages in bus drivers and substitute teachers.

According to materials posted ahead of the Board of Education meeting, 91% of all salaried DOE personnel, or 21,914 people, were vaccinated as of Nov. 1.

Worries about a backlash against a state mandate that all DOE employees must be vaccinated or submit to weekly Covid testing did not materialize.

Only three staff members resigned over the state mandate that all employees must be fully vaccinated against Covid or submit to a weekly Covid test. Three other employees were fired and the job status of eight others is pending a due process hearing.

The DOE does not keep track of the total number of vaccinated students, although kids in the 5-11 age group were eligible for the first shot starting in early November.

However, the department said 86% of the DOE campuses hosted a vaccine clinic, and that 5,414 students and another 1,432 other members of the public got their shots at those sites, although community-based health centers, pharmacies and doctor’s offices were options, too.

The vaccine requirement doesn’t extend to students, although student athletes, coaches and affiliated staff must be vaccinated in order to participate in school-based sports this year.

Staffing Issues

Schools also still face staffing challenges, particularly when it comes to a shortage of school bus drivers due to resignations over Covid fears or other reasons.

Though the DOE tried some stopgap measures like issuing Hele-On bus passes to students on Hawaii island or reimbursing parents gas mileage to take their kids to school, the alternatives attracted only minimal interest among families.

Fewer than 30 students are relying on the public transportation pass on Hawaii island while fewer than 50 families are participating in the mileage reimbursement.

As for coordinating with other groups to provide bus transportation, the DOE has not had much luck.

According to its materials, it said a request from the National Guard to step in was “denied due to lack of appropriate personnel” while a request to enlist firefighters was “denied as they are back-up when emergency medical technicians are short.”

Tour bus operators were also out of the question “due to driver shortages” and for being unable to fulfill federally required driver qualifications for student transportation.

And though some of the bus contracting companies have offered hiring bonuses or increased wages, a recent job fair resulted in “only three applications,” two of which didn’t clear the employee background check regulations,” according to DOE.

Offering some good news, the DOE said the number of substitutes has grown from 3,422 as of the first quarter of the school year to 3,816 as of Dec 1. The increase was attributed to a new online application for substitute teachers and removal of certain restrictions on the use of Class 1 subs, or those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

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