Public schools are in-person, but COVID is keeping hundreds of students away

The state Department of Education reports nearly 1,787 students and staff tested positive in the first week of the spring semester.
Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 5:10 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 7, 2022 at 10:28 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Department of Education reports nearly 1,787 students and staff tested positive for COVID in the first week of the spring semester.

Epidemiologist Dr. Tim Brown, senior fellow of East-West Center, calls the numbers troubling and says schools should be closed to improve the ventilation.

“Improving the ventilation during that period will also be a big help,” said Brown. “I think one of the things they should be doing is providing high quality masks to all students.”

This week, DOE reports 158 cases at Waipahu High School, 58 cases at Kapolei High School and 54 cases at Ewa Elementary School.

As of Friday, over 1,812 teachers were out, which is 200 more than what Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi reported Wednesday.

A DOE spokesperson says the cases reported this week represent a small fraction of the entire school system:

“Although school case counts are rising as a reflection of what’s happening in our community, 400 cases is still less than a half percent (0.2%) when you consider our entire school system. That’s not to dismiss the illnesses behind these case counts and the high cases at individual schools.”

So far, all schools are remaining in-person for now, but the DOE says every school has a plan to go online.

Earlier this week, Farrington High School saw nearly a third of its students out of class ― either because of a positive COVID test, an exposure or because of fear.

Similar situations are playing out in varying degrees at campuses across the state as students, teachers and administrators wade through an ongoing COVID surge that’s triggering record case counts.

Farrington High School said it has been able to cover for staff, but it has a lot of empty desks.

“Tuesday or Wednesday ... 29% of our kids were out,” said Farrington High School Principal Al Carganilla. “We’re a big school, this is quite a significant number.”

With so many getting sick or exposed to COVID, some schools are seeing a big drop in attendance.

Eight public charter schools have moved completely to online learning, according to the Charter Commission. Other schools are just scrambling to keep kids in class.

“This is probably one of the hardest weeks for our admin team here at Radford High School,” said Principal James Sunday.

Sunday said he has been doing his best just to get supervision for his students.

“I know that it does get frustrating when your child comes home and they say I was in the cafeteria today again,” Radford said. “Or, I had a security person watching our classroom or administrator watching our classroom today. But we are trying.”

He said 80 out of the school’s 1,200 students are out for COVID-related issues.

Sunday added that DOE administrators have been supportive of schools, but he hopes that they might consider temporary online options for public schools.

Kamaile Academy Public Charter School in Waianae sent 100 middle schoolers home after one case.

“Because of how contagious this new variant is, we’re closing whole classrooms,” said Principal Paul Kepka. Now, a quarter of their 1,000 students are in distance learning.

“Every school principal is making decisions that they feel is best for their school,” Kepka said. “In their community with the information and the resources they have.”

Kepka said he is considering moving the school online temporarily, and that all students would have access to a laptop and online learning platform.

Charters have that flexibility, but regular public schools prioritize staying in school.

Campbell Kapolei Complex Area superintendent Sean Tajima said it is more likely staffing shortages will force closures than cases.

“If it gets to the point where we can’t provide adequate staffing, or where it becomes a safety issue, they will definitely consider transitioning the school to distance learning at that point,” Tajima said.

“But it will be a case by case basis.”

He acknowledges the struggle of the school ohana.

“Some of them were putting in 10 hours a day to make COVID phone calls,” Tajima said. “Our teachers are super brave to come to school and be in front of their students, despite the high case count.”

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