By: Lokelani Wilder
Hawaii’s public schools will open for daily, in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year as community infection rates decrease and vaccinations increase. This resumption includes activities such as clubs, bands and athletics. The decision to fully return to in-person education comes as conditions have allowed for a broader community reopening. Resumption of full in-person learning is a key step in allowing more parents to return to work, thus allowing more businesses to fully reopen and aid in Hawaii’s economic recovery.
Hawaii schools first closed to students in March 2020 to align with the state’s emergency orders. More than 800 COVID cases were reported by schools and offices since June 2020. Eventually, Hawaii schools went to a distance learning model, which evolved as health and safety recommendations allowed for various levels of reopening.
The state Department of Education (DOE) began working in January 2020 to ensure staff and service providers were prioritized for getting the COVID- 19 vaccine as front-line essential workers. DOE’s reopening decision aligns with the broader distribution of vaccines, which are now available to kids 12 and older, who make up about half, or 87,000, of Hawaii’s public-school students. Over 101, 000 students ages 11 and under remain unvaccinated.
DOE’s reopening decision followed approximately two months of increased in-person learning opportunities at Hawaii’s elementary schools. By the end of academic year 2020-2021, nearly all schools are either doing full in-person learning or blended learning, so most students have already been back on campus for some form of in-person learning during the 4th quarter.
The Department added layer of protection with COVID vaccinations more widely available and the approval of the vaccine for adolescents ages 12 and older. All high schools have been paired with health care providers to offer vaccinations to interested students and families. DOE’s focus is now on completing the same preparations for middle school campuses.
Safety measures such as directing students and staff to stay home when sick, consistent mask-wearing, and proper hand hygiene are expected to be in place when full in-person school reopens. Other mitigation strategies such as cohort are considered secondary measures to be applied to the greatest extent possible before barring spectators entirely. Schools will continue to follow state and county guidelines relating to the allowance of spectators for events, but may resort to groups and cohorts to prevent crowded conditions.
COVID-19 vaccinations will continue to be highly encouraged but not mandatory for students or staff. The administrative authority for adopting or amending immunization requirements actually lies with the state Department of Health. This would include adding COVID-19 vaccines to the required immunizations for students. Until the Food and Drug Administration formally approves the COVID vaccines, they cannot be required immunizations. Anthony Fauci, making the weekend press circuit, reports that FDA approval is all but assured.
Plans are being finalized for weekly COVID testing at select pilot schools to further contain the spread in our school communities. With all these systems in place, DOE is optimistic to sustain positive changes and start to resume a sense of near normalcy in the fall.
DOE did not inform the 13,5000-member Hawaii State Teachers Association union of the in-person school reopening plan. This is a signal that Democrats and the union have fractured. The union is urging Ige to sign House Bill 613, which would use federal relief funds to give each teacher a $2,200 payment aimed at ensuring enough teachers return this fall. At the end of the first semester of school year 2020-21, there were 364 teacher vacancies, which calculates to roughly 2.7% of teacher positions. The union believes that the payments will incentivize teachers to return in 2021-2022. It’s will be harder to maintain social distancing if schools do not have enough teachers. Multiple research projects have shown that the pandemic has been very stressful on teachers. DOE has a deep concern that Hawaii may lose more teachers to retirement before the school year starts
Some parents may still be reluctant to send their children back to in-person class. For medically vulnerable families, going back in person is not an option. In those cases, homeschooling is a parent-initiated educational alternative to compulsory school attendance. There has yet to be any announcements on blended learning being offered by DOE state wide; however, distance learning may be an option for individual, student-focused circumstances. Although plenty of parents are relieved their kids will be back in school after a year and a half of juggling work and child care with online coursework, some families are wary of returning children to physical classrooms just yet due to health and safety concerns.
Even as schools are open, unless parents think they are safe, they may not be comfortable sending their child back. Being transparent is one way to ensure parents that you are being honest and open with them, and that’s something that we’ve been encouraging and advocating for since the beginning of the pandemic. State legislators are working to override Governor David Ige’s veto of Senate Bill 811, which would require the DOE as of July 1 to publish a weekly report on schools that have reported COVID cases.