Governor: Reopening Hawaii’s public schools is safe and necessary

Hawaii schools will need to implement specific safety rules for the upcoming school year.
Hawaii schools will need to implement specific safety rules for the upcoming school year.(Hawaii News Now/file)
Updated: Jul. 21, 2020 at 6:33 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The governor on Monday sought to reassure parents and teachers about the state’s plan to reopen public schools Aug. 4, saying health and safety are the top priority for the Education Department and that protective measures are in place to keep people safe.

“Going to school will be a change for all of us,” said Gov. David Ige, in a news conference Monday. “But reopening schools is an important part of moving our community forward.”

#LIVE: Gov. David Ige and other state officials hold a press conference to discuss coronavirus pandemic response efforts.

Posted by Hawaii News Now on Monday, July 20, 2020

While campuses are reopening Aug. 4 not all of Hawaii’s 180,000 public school students will be returning at once. Some will still be attending classes remotely either part- or full-time.

Education officials say the first two weeks will be half days, and heavily focused on getting students and teachers used to a hybrid model of learning as well as building relationships.

“If we have to go into distance learning again, it’s going to be really important for the students and teachers to know one another,” said Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne.

“And the longer we delay opening or if we go straight into distance learning we’re going to lose a lot more children to deficient educational services than we can afford to lose as a state.”

Most campuses are opting for a “blended” learning model, which means public school students will get a combination of in-person and remote instruction.

“The blended learning model simply means part of your learning happens in a school building ... and the rest of the days the student is logging into a distance learning platform,” schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said.

She added that to prepare for the reopening of schools, the DOE has asked the governor for funding to help buy new electronic devices for students, cover the cost of 15 additional nursing staff at schools, and purchase new distancing learning software.

Kishimoto also said about 10-20% of families are asking for full distance learning options. Students at any public school can opt for remote learning.

Some teachers and lawmakers have expressed concern about the prospect of reopening public schools, asking whether the precautions being taken are enough.

Corey Rosenlee, the head of the teachers union, said there are still so many unanswered questions and he added the reality teachers will be facing in the classroom is not the reality the state is painting.

“Our teachers are scared. They’re afraid right now going back in the classroom," he said.

“And one of the things not being dealt with is this: If our teachers do not believe returning to the classroom will be safe for them, they’re not going to return.”

Nationally, there’s a growing debate about whether it’s safe to reopen public schools and some states have already committed to returning to remote learning in the fall.

But the governor noted that other states are in a very different position than Hawaii.

There have been about 20 new COVID-19 cases a day in the islands over the last several weeks, and the vast majority of those are on Oahu. Other states are tackling infections in the thousands.

To prepare for Hawaii public schools to reopen, the DOE has put out a long list of safety guidelines. Students will need to wear face coverings at most times and follow social distancing guidelines.

And schools will try to keep students with the same people as much as possible throughout the day ― a concept known as “school bubbles.”

When asked for the protocol if a student or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19, Kishimoto said the Education Department will isolate the individual, then notify the family and the Health Department.

“DOH looks at contact tracing, looks at whether the impact is class-wide, building-wide, region-wide, and they provide us guidance around some next steps that may be necessary to shut down a class or whether it’s a school or whether it’s a set of schools,” Kishimoto said.

This story will be updated.

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