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Thousands of Hawaii’s public school students return to campus for new academic year amid COVID surge

Published: Aug. 2, 2021 at 12:56 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 3, 2021 at 9:39 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - About 165,000 of Hawaii’s public school students returned to campus Tuesday for the new academic year even as new COVID cases are soaring in the islands.

The governor, interim schools superintendent and state health director sought to reassure parents and educators Monday that it’s safe for public school students to return to class this week, despite the ongoing surge in COVID infections.

Gov. David Ige and Health Director Dr. Libby Char acknowledged cases will go up when students return to class. But they said schools will mitigate a rise in infections by requiring masks and taking other measures. And they urged residents to do their part, including by getting vaccinated and staying home when sick.

“We all have a part to play in getting our students back to in-person learning,” Ige said, in a news conference at Kawananakoa Middle School. “It’s in the best interests of our students.”

State Health Department officials said while there is a risk in reopening schools, younger unvaccinated students can be kept in consistent groups and older students can get the vaccine.

“There will be an inevitable rise in cases no matter when we open the schools,” Char said.

“If we open schools in a couple of weeks, we will see a rise in a couple of weeks. If we delay it six weeks, we’ll see the rise in six weeks.”

Nationally, research has found older kids were more likely to spread the virus because they mix more.

That’s why officials are encouraging the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the surge in COVID cases in Hawaii — triggered largely by the delta variant — has prompted some to call for a delay to the start of the school year.

On Sunday, Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said a “pause” might be a good idea.

And on Monday, Hawaii Island Mayor Mitch Roth also supported a delay to the start of in-person learning.

“The Department of Education has a lot of great plans, but some of those plans are not fully implemented,” he said. “We still have a lot of questions about what schools are going to do,” said Roth.

But state authorities say that forgoing in-person instruction would have broader implications.

Most students learned remotely a majority of the time during the 2020-21 school year, and educators are still unsure of the scope of learning loss and other impacts.

“I think the in-person learning is most important,” said Interim schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi. “Especially if you get to interact with each other is so important,” he added.

It’s believed 80% of the teachers are vaccinated.

The teachers union did ask Ige to delay the reopening of elementary schools since the children are too young to get vaccinated, but were told no.

“They really feel that their hands are tied. It’s out of their hands basically to keep their students as safe as possible,” said Osa Tui, Jr., HSTA president.

Corrie Izumoto teaches sixth grade at Kawananakoa Middle School. She’s ready to welcome her students back ― putting the chairs at an angle so students can sit 3 feet apart.

“I’m excited. I can’t wait. I’m excited to have a full classroom of kids back in class on campus,” said Izumoto.

Some parents, meanwhile, are anxious.

“I just don’t feel safe at the moment,” said Jaydeen Rodrigues, whose two children are in elementary and middle school in the Waipahu area.

“Although I will be sending them back to the classroom, I just have that hesitancy in the back of my mind and that worry,” she added.

Mixed messages and a lack of vaccine centers have turned Waianae into a COVID hotspot.

Despite having 3% of the population, they’re responsible for 7% of the state’s case count.

“But I think it’s because the scientists part is going back and forth,” said Nohea Salvador Neula, of Waianae. “So, some say that if you have the vaccine, you’re spreading the delta variant or whatnot so that I think that’s what’s confusing, especially for the parents.”

“Most people just don’t really do them because they hear all the rumors and stuff,” said Josh Kapu, a senior at Nanakuli High School. “I did it, nothing happened to me so I say go for it.”

Although Kapu is vaccinated, he’s worried for those who aren’t.

“My dad has heart problems so if I bring it home get a higher chance from him to get taken out so kind of worried about that,” said Kapu.

“I’m confident in that, you know, for me, everybody in my household that’s over 12 been vaccinated,” said Scott Mcleod. “So, I feel good about that.”

In a bid to prevent cases on campuses, schools will require universal masking indoors. The state Health Department has also issued additional health guidance for school administrators.

Distance learning is also an option for students, but questions remain about the quality of instruction.

“I feel okay but with the cases going up, it would be good if they had like more options for parents,” said Salvador Neula. “Because right now it kind of seems like it’s either you work or you have to stay home to teach them.”

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