The state Department of Health released updated guidance Monday as to when it’s safe for Hawaii schools to bring students back onto campus for in-person instruction.

The new guidelines — revised from those first released a month ago — rely on two consecutive seven-day averages of daily new case rates per 100,000 residents and percent positivity rate by island. The old guidelines were based on number of cases per 10,000 residents per island over a 14-day period.

“By using the seven-day daily average per 100,000 population, the measures can be compared more easily with trend charts of case rates by county and island that are updated daily on our website and can be tracked alongside weekly county reopening measures,” a DOH press release states.

DOH, DOE, guidance, school reopening
Updated DOH guidance for when Hawaii schools should consider returning to in-person instruction. Hawaii Department of Health

The DOH cautions that these “thresholds alone shouldn’t determine movement between learning levels.”

The health department said schools should also take into account their ability to properly enforce mask-wearing, grouping students into cohorts, practicing physical distancing and cleaning and sanitizing.

Under the new DOH rubric, looking at the average daily cases per 100,000 residents over the seven-day periods of Sept. 30 to Oct. 6 and Oct. 7 to Oct. 13, Hawaii island and Oahu schools could safely enter “blended learning,” or rotating in-person with virtual learning, while Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai schools could enter in-person instruction for all students.

And to revert back to a more restrictive learning model, DOH advises that schools should track the daily case count over a consecutive two-week period on their island in general, and be mindful of other unique factors like an “uncontrolled outbreak in a school.”

The old DOH guidelines drew criticism from the state teachers union for being unsafe by suggesting too high a number of positive cases as a base threshold for when students could return to campus.

In a call with reporters Monday, the union president was receptive to the updated guidance, saying they were “now more closely aligned with the CDC metrics,” referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“At least now we have an opportunity to start a conversation that should have started months ago,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. But he added there are still unanswered questions from the Hawaii Department of Education, including which students would be allowed to learn at home and which should be brought back onto campus during the transition between learning models.

Right now, most of the 257 DOE schools across the state are in distance learning mode, with the second quarter well underway. However, some complex areas said they would consider bringing students back to campus gradually this calendar year, starting with lower grade levels.

The DOH said the updated guidance was a collaborative effort with the DOE, Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, Hawaii Catholic Schools, Hawaii Public Charter Schools Commission and American Academy of Pediatrics.

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