As COVID-19 cases continue to climb throughout Hawaii, educators have called on the state Department of Education for more transparency when cases are found in schools.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association said during a news conference Tuesday that cases of COVID-19 had been reported at five schools in Hawaii since Thursday, including Hilo Intermediate School.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the union was contacted by teachers to report these cases at their schools.
“In each of these cases, teachers were notified of the outbreaks, but the parents and greater public were not,” he said. “This is happening less than one week before students are supposed to return for face-to-face learning and testing on school campuses.”
The newest incidents show neither the DOE nor the state Department of Health is informing the public about cases, Rosenlee said.
State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, however, said in a written statement that “timely notification” was made to the impacted school community for each positive DOE-related case.
“This is consistent with the department’s protocols for notifying school communities about any health or safety threat that occurs on a campus,” she said. “The department followed its procedures on internal notification, communication to health officials, cleaning and sanitizing of facilities and informing impacted staff, students and/or vendors.”
Kishimoto said the DOH is the lead agency in terms of notifying individuals who were possibly exposed, and if a case requires broader notification to the public, it will respond accordingly.
Although Rosenlee reported a case associated with Hilo Intermediate, a list of cases by complex area, released Tuesday by the DOE following the HSTA news conference, showed no cases have been reported in the three Big Island complex areas: Hilo-Waiakea, Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa and Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena.
Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area Superintendent Esther Kanehailua said the case at Hilo Intermediate was not an employee, but rather a person who visited a staff member at the school, unaware they had the virus.
The school found out last Friday.
Kanehailua said the visitor, who wasn’t on campus long, had no other contacts other than the single employee. As a precaution, the school principal notified everyone who came into contact with the staff member.
The facility was cleaned with the help of the county, she said, and the employee received a negative test result the following day.
“We report on positive information related to students and our employees,” Kishimoto said in a call to members of the media Tuesday. “There will be situations where there may be a potentially positive case that impacts a family member, and that does not align with our kuleana to report on students and employees. … The Hilo situation is actually a family member situation, and so we have the appropriate information, and know fully whether that is within our scope of reporting.
“Unless it’s a student or employee we will not be reporting on it. That is for the Department of Health to report on.”
The HSTA contends there have been at least nine campuses with COVID-19 cases in the past 11 days, in which some staff were quarantined and campuses closed.
Cases also were reported at Campbell High, Kapolei Middle, Moanalua Elementary, Moanalua High School, Iliahi Elementary, Kaala Elementary, Leilehua High and Waialae Public Charter School, all on Oahu, the HSTA said.
According to the DOE list, one case was reported in a staff member in the Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani, Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt, Pearl City-Waipahu complex areas on Oahu; in one staff member and one student in the Aiea-Moanalua-Radford Complex Area on Oahu; in three staff members and a student in the Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua Complex Area on Oahu; three staff members in the Campbell-Kapolei Complex Area, also on Oahu; and one student in the Kapaa-Kauai-Waimea Complex Area on Kauai.
Kishimoto said she requested the DOH consider assigning a team of contact tracers specifically for pre-K through 12th-grade education.
“We have 180,000 students and thus impact many families on all of our islands,” she said. “And we have 40,000 full-time and part-time employees, and so we have a very, very broad reach.”
Kishimoto said she wants contact tracers assigned to each complex area so complex area superintendents and the tracers “know each other, know the variations and the unique conditions of our complex areas — some more rural, some more urban, some with more non-English speakers than others — which requires different levels of support.”
Teachers and staff returned to work July 29. Most public school students, including those on the Big Island, will transition to distance learning for the first four weeks of instruction, the DOE announced Tuesday.
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