More students could soon return to public schools across Hawaii as the state Department of Education works to bring additional keiki to campus for in-person instruction.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, DOE schools have not fully reopened since March 13, 2020.
The DOE’s fourth-quarter goal is to have all elementary students and more secondary students returning to campuses each day. The fourth quarter begins March 22.
Students have lost up to 174 days of in-person instruction due to health and safety mitigation measures, state Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a memo to state Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne.
Kishimoto will discuss strategies for safely reopening schools to more in-person instruction in the fourth quarter during a meeting of the BOE set for 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
“During the current school year, schools have been gradually returning students to campus for in-person instruction,” she wrote. “Schools have implemented instructional models that best meet the needs of their students and school community while adhering to the health and safety guidelines of state health leaders and addressing the concerns of employees.
“This has been a challenge for school leaders who have had to manage competing demands regarding student learning and the welfare of staff.”
Kishimoto said recent research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has shown that attending schools where recommended mitigation strategies have been implemented does not place students in a higher-risk environment than exists in the community.
Discussions about when and how students return to in-person school have often been divisive, and arguments have weighed the health and safety of staff and students against the detriments of distance learning.
But with COVID-19 case counts at low levels across Hawaii — the state had a 1.1% test positivity rate Tuesday and the Big Island had a 0.4% positivity rate — more people are pushing to get more students on campus.
Acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said last week that Hawaii’s public schools should resume in-person classes as soon as possible because children can attend class safely.
“As we have learned more about COVID-19 and schools, we have also learned that schools are not, as initially anticipated, amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission,” Kemble wrote in a letter last Friday to Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and the Hawaii Department of Education. “Rather schools are one of the safest environments for children when it comes to COVID-19.”
Kemble said in-person instruction provides children better educational, social, emotional and physical support than online instruction, and that universal mask usage, hygiene and keeping kids in cohorts can dramatically minimize the transmission risk of the coronavirus.
“Schools that have implemented mitigation measures are able to control COVID-19 transmission better than many community settings, where children may interact in less structured ways or attend gatherings with their families,” she wrote.
Schatz said he would try his best to support Kemble’s recommendation. He had previously suggested that it would be “a good goal” for Hawaii to try to resume in-person learning after spring break ends.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said in a livestream Monday that he thinks schools will be fully opened for the fourth quarter.
“It’s pretty important that we get the kids back into school because they’ve been suffering, but we will have the fourth quarter in person,” he said. “It’ll be not like your traditional, regular five-days-a-week for kids — that will come in the fall. But also this bodes well for summer schools.”
The Hawaii State Teachers Association does not object to more students returning to campus, but what that return looks like must first be defined, President Corey Rosenlee said Monday.
“I would ask the Department of Education to actually define what that (return to campus) means and what their goals are,” he said. “… I think everyone has in their own mind what they think it is. I think they think that it’s just all students returning. I do not think that’s what the Department of Education is trying to suggest, but I think that’s a question that should be answered by the department, because it’s a little hard to react to something until we know what exactly they’re planning on doing.”
Rosenlee said the teachers union had previously held the position schools should maintain distance learning, but the union’s board of directors said the HSTA would be willing to begin conversations about what it will take to bring more students back to campuses.
“We hope that both sides will be able to find compromise at the end of the day.”
Additionally, Rosenlee said a big concern is that even though many teachers will potentially be vaccinated by the end of spring break, it’s not known how comfortable parents will feel sending students back.
“And I think the big question is what accommodations are going to be made for parents that still want to do distance learning.”
Some parents, however, are happy to see the push for in-person classes.
“I was very pleased to see Superintendent Kishimoto, Sen. Schatz and Dr. Kemble’s statements regarding getting our children back to full in-person learning,” said Dr. Lauren Stuart, a Big Island pediatrician and parent to elementary-age students. “I strongly support starting back at the beginning of the fourth quarter, given how our low COVID-19 numbers, ability to vaccinate our teachers and support staff, and the fact that our climate allows for leaving windows and doors open to increase ventilation in the classroom.”
Stuart was one of six pediatricians who last month called for keiki to return to full-time, in-person learning without delay.
“Our children are suffering,” Stuart told the Tribune-Herald last week. “They’re suffering socially, suffering emotionally and suffering educationally. … The teachers are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, but it’s not enough to keep the kids learning like they should be.”
Stuart, who last week criticized the HSTA for stymieing students’ return to school, said Tuesday her goal is to start a grassroots effort with parents to put pressure on government leaders, the DOE and the DOH “to get our kids safely back in school, preferably on March 22.”
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.