In fresh effort to reopen campuses, state again revises COVID-19 guidance for schools

Updated: Oct. 19, 2020 at 4:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the state begins to transition its focus from reopening to tourists to reopening public school campuses, the Department of Health on Monday released a new set of metrics designed to guide the Education Department’s decision making about when students can return to campus.

By design, the tiered structure closely resembles the reopening plan that’s been put in place by the City and County of Honolulu.

Experts will review two weeks of data across each county, and decisions on which learning model to utilize ― ranging from mostly at home learning to entirely in-person learning ― will be based on seven-day case counts and positivity percentages.

In order to conduct in-person learning, for example, a county would need to have a seven-day average or two or fewer new cases per 100,000 people, and a positivity percentage of less than 1%.

Positivity percentage measures the number of positive coronavirus cases among the total number of tests conducted in a certain time period.

Over the course of the last two weeks, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai would all qualify for in person learning, while students on Oahu and Hawaii Island would fall under the blended learning approach.

As cases go up or down, the Department of Education plans on either returning or keeping elementary school students in classrooms as much as possible. If the seven-day average for new cases on Maui were to rise above 2, for example, elementary school students would remain on campus while older students would transition back toward a blended approach.

“The core considerations for schools, the measures schools must take to prevent spread of disease, have not changed and remain the most important part of any school’s preparations to open for in-person learning and their response to COVID-19,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, in a statement from the Health Department on Monday.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said while he is glad the state is finally offering stricter guidance, he is still concerned about several key details.

“There has to be some way to double check and hold the Department of Education accountable. Right now there is nothing other than their word that these mitigation strategies are being done and I can tell you that we know for certain that they’re not being done,” said Rosenlee.

For example, Rosenlee said students aren’t maintaining six-feet distancing in the cafeteria and hallways before and after school. He also said custodians can’t keep up.

“We know that our janitors are completely overwhelmed and that certain areas are not disinfected daily, especially those high touch areas,” Rosenlee said.

A Hawaii Island high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by the DOE, said the new guidelines are an improvement but it’s still not enough to keep teachers safe.

“I think that if they really were to focus on filtration and ventilation, that would be ideal because that’s how it [the virus] travels," she said. "Students and teachers are really kind of guinea pigs right now ... I need to know that if I’m going to be risking my life, that people are looking out for it. I don’t feel like that’s happening.”

Last month, Dr. Christina Kishimoto and the Department of Education released a set of reopening metrics that were quickly decried by both the the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the chair of the school board as being far too lax.

The new reopening measures were based on the CDC recommendations and have been approved by Gov. David Ige, the Department of Health says.

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