Each of Hawaii’s 15 geographic complex areas saw a double-digit percentage of students absent earlier this month amid a surge in coronavirus cases, according to information shared Thursday at a Board of Education meeting.

In some areas of the state, as many as a third of all students were not present at school between Jan. 4 and Jan. 7. The highest percentages were seen in rural areas of the state including the islands of Lanai with 33.9% of the student body out and Molokai with 29.1% out in that period. On Oahu, the percentage of absences reached up to 25% in Kahuku near the North Shore and 19% in Campbell-Kapolei.

In the first semester of the school year, from Aug. 3 to Dec. 17, the overall student absentee rate ranged from 5% to 13%. In comparison, the first semester of the pre-pandemic 2019-2020 school year saw the percentage of student absences ranging from 3% to 7% across the complex areas, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Lanai High and Elementary School. Water fountains are covered with plastic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where are all the kids? As many as a third of all students in certain parts of the state were absent in the first week of the second semester. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The upward trend of absences since schools returned from winter break earlier this month point to the heavy disruptions to school operations caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, which also has led to extensive staff shortages.

Among staff, absentee rates ranged from 14% to 18% in the first semester of the school year. On one day last week, nearly 2,000 teachers among 13,000 statewide did not report to school, a 15% absentee rate.

In a presentation to the Board of Education, interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said those staff absences were “not all Covid-related,” but also were due to quarantine or isolation requirements.

The total number of positive Covid cases reported across the DOE’s 257 campuses reached another record-high Tuesday of at least 1,123 cases across 202 schools, leading to a total in just the three weeks since school resumed on Jan. 4 to 8,800.

Despite the high numbers, the DOE has been firm about sticking to in-person learning as much as possible this year to stem further academic loss or erosion of students’ social development. But critics point out that students also miss out on learning when they’re herded in large groups to common areas of the school due to lack of an instructor.

Hayashi repeated Thursday that the department would give no specific triggers for when a school should consider a move to virtual learning. So far, at least four schools have chosen to do so, most recently Haiku Elementary on Maui this week, due to the large numbers of student and staff absences.

“Each situation is unique, there is not one ‘one size fits all’ number we can give,” Hayashi said.

DOE Board Member Bruce Voss.
Board of Education member Bruce Voss was not satisfied with the interim superintendent’s response. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

BOE member Bruce Voss said Hayashi’s response was not satisfactory nor any help to schools that have been left to figure it out on their own in consultation with their complex area superintendent.

Hayashi said the DOE would “work to get something more firmly in place (as far as guidelines), but we do need the flexibility to have that discussion around those areas. We will get something out to the schools.”

Hayashi also said the DOE recommends that schools consider three factors in deciding whether to switch to remote learning: whether there’s sufficient staff to run the school, whether there’s sufficient supervision during periods like recess and lunch and whether the school can provide sufficient “operational needs” like bus transportation, meals and running water.

“This will look different on every campus,” he said, adding that KN95 masks are being provided to certain employees who are in health-related or higher-risk positions.

Meanwhile, teachers are not the only ones in short supply: the DOE shared data showing that other school personnel are in need.

As of Jan. 4, the absentee rate was 33% for cafeteria helpers, 77% for educational interpreters, 34% for school psychologists and 15% for bus drivers.

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