Preparing for the start of the new school year, state officials announced Tuesday that indoor masks will no longer be mandatory at Hawaii’s public schools thanks to a decline in coronavirus cases and an increase in vaccine availability.

The decision, which takes effect on Aug. 1, removes one of the final vestiges of restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 in Hawaii.

“This is an opportunity to move forward towards a new normal, and we think this is the right time to do so,” State Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said Tuesday at a news conference.

Maui Baldwin HS
Indoor masking will become optional for public schools starting on Aug. 1. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

Some parents had criticized the Department of Education for extending the indoor mask mandate through the summer even after the governor lifted the overall requirement for the rest of the state.

Kemble said it was possible to make masking optional in schools since Covid vaccines and booster shots are more widely available for younger children, many kids have immunity from previous infections, and statewide testing is widely available.

But she “strongly encouraged” people to wear masks indoors if Covid-19 cases increase.

Officials also lifted the recommendation for students exposed to Covid to quarantine for five days.

The new guidance takes effect on Aug. 1, the first day of school for most students in Hawaii’s 257 public schools.

Officials, however, encouraged students and teachers to wear masks and said the mandate may be reimposed by individual schools on a case-by-case basis in case of Covid clusters or a spike in cases.

Concerns about Covid remain high as an omicron subvariant known as BA.5 is proving highly contagious and leading to breakthrough infections. However, the number of coronavirus cases in Hawaii has declined in recent weeks, with a weekly average of 651 cases per day reported last Wednesday. The number of Covid hospitalizations also remains relatively low.

Kemble said 73% of students between 12 and 17 years old have received the first two doses of vaccine and 26% are boosted.

“You don’t know if the student in class sitting next to your child is going to be masking or not, so now is a really good time to boost,” Kemble said.

Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong said that maintaining the indoor mask policy up to this point helped keep more students in school for in-person learning. But she agreed it was time to change the policy.

“It’s going to be an exciting year ahead,” she said. “We do encourage our families to continue to monitor their children. Please keep them home if they’re sick or they don’t feel well, and our schools do have ample supplies including self-test kits.”

The DOE will still have virtual learning options available, according to Armstrong.

The revised guidance will be published in the next few weeks, Kemble said.

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