Tens of thousands of children will head back to public schools on Tuesday after a two-week winter recess that roughly coincided with a new Covid-19 surge, raising concerns that the kids may be exposed to the highly contagious omicron variant as they return to crowded halls and classrooms.

The second half of the school year begins as Hawaii’s Covid-19 case count has soared past 3,000 in recent days, leading to a statewide seven-day average positivity rate of 17%, although the number of deaths and hospitalizations remains relatively low.

The state Department of Education stood firm in its refusal to delay in-person learning for 159,500 students — as many school districts on the mainland are doing — or to shift to a remote model until the Covid case count lowers or more data can be gathered about the severity of the latest surge.

“We anticipate a rise in case counts because schools are a reflection of their communities; however, data shows the safety measures practiced in schools are effective,” interim superintendent Keith Hayashi wrote to parents in a letter sent Monday.

Ma’ema’e Elementary School sign.
Hawaii students are preparing to return to public schools on Tuesday after a two-week winter break. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a prepared statement last week, Hayashi defended the decision to send kids back to school by pointing to the “consistent safety measures” on campuses including the availability of vaccines for kids as young as 5 years old, booster shots for those 16 and up, mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.

Academic Concerns

Since the new school year began in August, Hawaii education officials have insisted that in-person instruction is needed to reverse academic losses suffered by many students during a year and a half of mostly remote or hybrid learning aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

The DOE also has amended its return to school criteria for students or staff showing Covid-like symptoms or testing positive. They must quarantine at home for at least five days, in line with recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention permitting the isolation period to be cut in half. The state Department of Health has adopted the new guidance as has the state’s Safe Travels program.

Hawaii’s schools began to see a spike in Covid-19 cases starting in mid-December, after months of relatively low numbers, but that was interrupted by the two-week holiday recess.

Between Dec. 1 and Dec. 20, when the winter break began, Hawaii schools saw a daily average of 25 positive cases. The winter recess offered some relief, but now people are worried that new cases stemming from holiday celebrations could start to appear as students return to school.

While 74% of Hawaii’s total population is fully vaccinated, that number drops to 20% for kids aged 5-11, according to the DOH’s Covid-19 dashboard.

“Some school districts (elsewhere) are taking a two-week pause, which would match up with our understanding of the incubation period with big New Year’s parties,” said Lynn Otaguro, a retired Hawaii teacher and public school advocate. “It would give people a chance to breathe and assess where we are with case counts and hospitalizations.”

Students will start the new year with remote learning in Newark, N.J., Milwaukee, Atlanta and Detroit. Public schools in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts are taking extra measures like distributing free rapid tests to teachers and staff before school resumes or requiring proof of a negative test for returning students.

Some Hawaii charter schools — which are public, taxpayer-funded schools but have more autonomy in decision-making — have decided to temporarily return to distance learning.

DreamHouse Ewa Beach will conduct classes remotely for the first half of the month but plans to bring kids back to campus after the Martin Luther King holiday starting Jan. 18, said school leader Alex Teece.

In a letter to parents, he attributed the decision to a “significant rise in Covid cases over the past two weeks, multiple positive cases and close contacts already reported from within our DreamHouse Ohana,” as well as the need to avoid the proximity of 300 children on campus each day.

Neighbor Islands

Some DOE complex areas are planning contingency measures. Schools in the Kohala region of north Hawaii island canceled large gatherings, including those held outdoors. They also braced for the potential need to switch to remote learning if cases rise, according to a letter signed by three principals.

“Families will be provided with two days of work to complete on their own at home during this transitional period,” it added.

Waipahu Elementary principal Aaron Tominaga sounded an optimistic tone as he discussed preparations to bring back nearly 1,000 students on Tuesday.

The school already has been practicing distancing between students, keeping kids in smaller groups and hosting the first of two rounds of vaccinations. The second will occur on Saturday.

Tominaga also said he was temporarily halting after-school tutoring and extracurricular activities to prevent mingling among kids in different grade levels.

“I feel confident that moving forward, our school is safe for our students to come back,” Tominaga said Monday in a phone interview. He acknowledged that the preventive measures aren’t foolproof but said he was encouraged by the fact that a cumulative case count of 29 cases since August didn’t spread more widely on campus.

One area that remains problematic across the DOE system is the availability of tests for students and staff even as the omicron variant is causing demand to spike.

In a Dec. 16 Board of Education meeting, DOE officials said 168 of 294 public schools, including charter schools, were conducting on-campus testing, but schools on Oahu use PCR tests that take several days to process since samples have to be sent to the mainland.

Testing Woes

Some schools on the neighbor islands have access to rapid antigen tests that offer results within 15 to 30 minutes, while other community partnerships, like Pacific Alliance Against Covid-19, offer both kinds of tests through community clinics across the Waianae coast.

“There is no question tests are in high demand,” state Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr said Monday. “We are responding as quickly as we can to areas of need with the limited resources available to us.”

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said Monday that the rapid testing program currently available on neighbor islands — known as Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity — will expand to Oahu this week under a new partnership with CVS, with 20 schools signing up to begin to offer rapid testing to students and staff.

Some people are frustrated by what they say is DOE’s lack of a clear plan in case schools see an alarming spike in cases.

The DOE and DOH had “time to make better plans for situations like this and failed to act in a responsible way,” Hawaii State Teachers Association president Osa Tui Jr. said in a statement last week.

“The HSTA has been asking for months what contingency plans are and the HIDOE has refused to share such plans,” he said. “Our communities deserve more transparency so they can plan for adequate childcare and work/schedule modifications.”

At the BOE meeting last month, deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami insisted that the department has “contingency plans for every single school.”

Asked what those plans entail, Kalani did not provide specifics.

“All schools have contingency plans in place should the need arise to have to shift to an alternate mode of learning due to any type of emergency, including staff shortages,” she said.

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