Leaders agree on safety guidelines for schools

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Third grade teacher Jason Hondo plays a video about space while teaching at Ernest Bowen de Silva Elementary School in Hilo on Feb. 24.

State health, education and union leaders have agreed on safety protocols that will permit more students to return to public school campuses.

“We know that face-to-face learning is so vital for our students, especially our youngest learners,” State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a Zoom call Monday. “We’ve been diligently working to maximize in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.”

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, public schools in Hawaii have not fully reopened since closing on March 13, 2020.

Kishimoto said Monday the state Department of Health has signed off on the DOE’s revised health and safety guidelines that will allow more students to return to campuses.

Amendments to a memorandum of understanding relating to COVID-19 — signed last June with the Hawaii State Teachers Association — also have been OK’d by both the teachers union and Gov. David Ige.

To ramp up in-person instruction, all schools will use safety measures that are in line with state and federal guidelines. Consistent masking, staying home when ill, and proper hand hygiene will be implemented in every situation, regardless of the level of community virus transmission.

Other efforts, such as cohorting, physical distancing, adjusting ventilation systems, physical barriers and cleaning high-touch areas, will be combined to the greatest extent possible.

Additionally, the guidelines require schools to give at least seven days notice before increasing in-person schooling and permit employees who are considered close contacts to work remotely, should they have to quarantine in the event that a classroom, work space or building is closed due to COVID-19, or a student is sent home or directed to quarantine.

According to Kishimoto, union leaders from the HSTA, Hawaii Government Employees Association, and United Public Workers are aware of and support the department’s plans to ramp up in-person in the final quarter, which starts March 22.

But what that return looks like will vary from school to school.

“It really is, at the complex area and at the school level, so unique in terms of what schools can and cannot do or offer to families,” Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area Superintendent Esther Kanehailua said during the same Zoom call. “I think what we have at the forefront all the time is that we look at equity in terms of what we provide for students.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said in a separate Zoom call Monday that from the beginning of the pandemic, many were waiting for the day more students could return to campus.

“Our keiki have missed their teachers, and I can say our teachers have missed our keiki,” he said. “We were waiting for the time where the scientists and the science said it was safe. With the new CDC recommendations, we do believe it is now time for more of our students to come on campus.”

Rosenlee said three things have made it safer for more students to return: a vast majority of teachers will have been vaccinated, low COVID-19 case counts in Hawaii, and recent changes to distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Six-foot distancing was always one of the biggest barriers to bringing more students back to campus, but Rosenlee said new guidance from the CDC that eased social distancing requirements makes it possible to put more students in classrooms.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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