Officials update COVID guidelines for Hawaii public schools

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Jul. 27—The state Department of Health updated its COVID-19 guidance for schools Monday, calling for "multiple-layered prevention strategies " that prioritize in-person instruction on campuses across the state.

Acting state Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said the guidance emphasizes the promotion of vaccinations for students, teachers and staff ; COVID-19 screening ; keeping students 3 feet apart where possible ; and increased ventilation of classrooms, among other things.

The guidance, updated eight days before the Aug. 3 first day of public school, generally follows the recommendations for schools released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month.

But it goes a step further in recommending that all teachers, staff and students wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. The guidance calls for wearing a mask indoors as well as in crowded situations outside.

The July 9 CDC guidance says masks are needed indoors only by individuals who are not fully vaccinated.

Kemble said the state decided to recommend masks for everyone "for operational reasons and equity issues."

The new guidelines were released as the state experiences a spike of new COVID-19 cases. Monday marked the 12th straight day of triple-digit new infections in Hawaii as the delta variant spreads across the islands.

Despite the surge, the guidance prioritizes full in-person opening of school campuses in what Kemble called an acknowledgement of the toll that online learning took on many students last year.

"We really have faced a crisis over the last year for children being sometimes faced with mental health issues from being in remote learning, " the epidemiologist said. "Getting back to school is such a core part of moving back to a normal place for our society."

Cast aside are previous recommendations for physical barriers, limits on the number of students to a bus seat and community disease thresholds for schools to switch to different learning modes.

In addition, there is no requirement for a negative COVID-19 test or a clinician's note to return to school after isolation and quarantine.

Kemble said growing evidence indicates that schools are not amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission.

Kemble said that while an increasing number of children under 12 are being infected with the delta variant, the greatest risk of transmission still comes from unvaccinated adults.

She urged anyone who comes into contact with children to get vaccinated.

"It really is critical, " she implored. "This is for our keiki."

Currently, vaccinations are authorized only for children age 12 and older.

Deputy schools Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said school administrators worked with the Department of Health on the recommendations and are preparing to implement them for the new school year.

According to guidance, schools should consider screening for all teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated, regardless of the level of community transmission.

The guidance also suggests screening for those who are not fully vaccinated to allow for safe participation in extracurricular activities such as football, band and chorus.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Osa Tui Jr. said teachers appreciate the mask guidance but are disappointed it was silent on distance learning and the fact that some teachers are still being asked to teach online and in class simultaneously, despite disastrous results last year.

Julie Reyes Oda, head of HSTA's Leeward Chapter, said teachers are also worried about crowded faculty meetings. She said the guidance should offer other options.

Mireille Ellsworth, an English teacher at Waiakea High School in Hilo and head of the social media group Hawai 'i for a Safe Return to Schools, said she was disappointed with the guidance.

"There are a lot of pukas, " she said. "It's half done. You cannot address the pandemic by patching together layers of mitigation and hoping for the best. Our keiki are too precious."

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