As Hawaii Department of Education schools resume the school year on Monday after a weeklong fall break, most will be “staying put” with the distance learning model with which they started the school year, the deputy superintendent told a special state Senate COVID-19 committee on Friday.

“For the most part, schools are staying put with the same model they used before they closed for fall break,” Phyllis Unebasami told lawmakers.

Appearing at the same hearing, deputy state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said the Department of Health plans to release a new guidance document on school reopenings “as soon as possible,” following weekly meetings with stakeholders.

Dr. Sarah Kemble, deputy state epidemiologist, initially announced new DOH metrics for school reopenings on Sept. 17. Eleni Avendaño/Civil Beat/2020

Pressed by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz on when that could be, Kemble replied possibly by the end of next week.

The DOH had released metrics on Sept. 17 for when it would be safe for schools to reopen to kids or when they should close following positive cases. The metrics used a threshold of number of positive cases per 10,000 residents, which many felt was unreasonably low.

Kemble said the new guidance will likely be amended to reflect the number of positive cases per 100,000 residents, to more consistently line up with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance around school re-openings.

“We made the best decisions we could with the resources we had at the time,” Kemble told lawmakers regarding the initial guidance.

Most DOE schools, she said, have nevertheless “taken a more conservative stance” in their reopening plans for the second quarter than what was advised in the guidance document.

Almost all 257 DOE schools began the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 17 with a full-distance plan due to the rise in coronavirus cases, mostly on Oahu. They have the option to start phasing in more students onto campus in the second quarter.

Most complex areas, however, are continuing with all-distance learning for most if not all of the second quarter, which goes until the end of the calendar year. Those complex areas that are contemplating a return to in-person learning in the second quarter will do so gradually, or communicate updated plans to families and teachers later in the quarter.

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