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DOH releases school virus guidelines

  • Sarah Kemble

The state Department of Health on Monday released newly updated school re-opening guidance — eight days before students are slated to return to the classroom on Aug. 3.

“This update to the guidance comes at a time when we are really emphasizing the prioritization of a return to in-person learning for students in K-12 schools,” acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said Monday in a Zoom call with reporters. “This top priority comes out of recognizing the health impacts to children of not participating in in-person learning, and acknowledging that the science that has developed around effective mitigation strategies in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has grown and given us many more tools to ensure we make schools as safe an environment as possible.”

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Because of the ongoing pandemic, state Department of Education schools have not fully reopened to in-person instruction since March 13, 2020.

Vaccination of all eligible children and adults against the coronavirus has been identified as the “most important core essential strategy” to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Other essential mitigation strategies include staying home when sick and going home if sick at school, correct and consistent mask wearing, and hand hygiene.

According to Kemble, universal masking is recommended for all indoor school settings and outdoor activities where crowding or prolonged close contact is anticipated.

Among mitigation efforts that should be applied in combination and to the greatest extent possible, schools also are encouraged to keep students within small, established “ohana bubbles” or cohorts — which can be used to limit the number of students and staff who interact with each other — as well as improving ventilation, physical distancing and screening testing.

“Schools should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures but should not exclude students from in-person education to keep a minimum distance requirement,” the guidelines state. “Several studies from the 2020-2021 school year show low COVID-19 transmission levels among students in schools that had less than 6 feet of physical distance when the school implemented and layered other mitigation strategies, such as the use of masks.”

Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said during the same Zoom call that the DOE has been preparing for in-person learning since last school year.

“As we did the summer learning, again we saw that as practice, and we used the lessons learned to really think about what are the areas that we needed to prep for,” she said.

Unebasami said state and local administrators are committed to in-person learning.

“We’re going to do everything we can to ensure there’s a seat for every student that is enrolled in public schools for in-person learning.”

The DOH guidance, however, was released amid an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases statewide and the growing prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta variant across the islands.

Monday, with 163 new cases, marked the 12th consecutive day of triple-digit new cases reported by the DOH.

Hawaii County now has a test positivity rate of 7%, by far the largest in the state. The DOH reports a 4.6% positivity rate statewide.

“It is a challenging time,” Kemble said. “We’re seeing a real rise in cases. (The guidance) is in the context of having new variants that have expanded greatly in Hawaii, but also in the context of many changes in behavioral practices. … I think we really need to look hard at how we as a community are moving forward with mitigation and make sure that we aren’t leaving behind a piece of the tools that we still have to reduce spread of variants and COVID-19 in general, in addition to vaccination.”

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Osa Tui Jr. said during a different Zoom call that the teachers’ union is processing the details outlined in the updated guidance.

“Our teachers have wanted to be back in school with their students for a while now and they’re committed to making their classrooms as safe as possible for their students,” he said. “Mask-wearing is one of those mitigation strategies, so we appreciate that it says that everyone should be wearing masks indoors.”

But access to personal protective equipment and sanitation is a must to ensure there’s little chance of virus transmission, he said. The HSTA also wants to ensure online options for families worried to send students not yet eligible for a vaccine back to campus.

When asked if schools will return to virtual learning if there’s an uptick in cases, Gov. David Ige said during a livestream Monday that his administration has had a series of “really good discussions” with both the DOE an DOH to work through different scenarios.

“So the schools do have guidance about what happens if a faculty member or a student becomes infected,” he said. “They do have plans to isolate and test the individuals involved. They’re prepared to have to shut down a classroom and clean and sanitize the classroom. They’re prepared to shut down a series of classrooms if that’s what the situation requires. They’re prepared to shut down a building if that makes sense, or the entire school if that makes sense.

“The department is a lot better prepared as we’ve all learned to live with COVID,” he continued. “And we have a much, much better understanding now of how to keep our students safe (and) the staff and faculty of the school safe. We have better tests available with quicker results. And we are definitely prepared to get students back to in-person learning. We do know that that has a large impact on students.”

Tui, however, said one concern the HSTA has about the guidelines regards school meals. Principals are still trying to figure out how they will feed students safely, he said.

“Right now the guidelines say its OK to have students next to each other, but we know that when they’re eating, they’re going to have to be without masks, and if they’re going to be without masks while they’re eating they are at higher potential for transmitting,” said Tui. “So we’re waiting to see what schools do with regards to feeding during breakfast and lunch.”

Tui said, too, that interactions should be limited to teacher and students only.

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“When we have these faculty meetings where teachers are going to be in rooms together, what we don’t want is for there to be a COVID outbreak among the teachers and then effectively having to quarantine all our teachers at a school,” he said. “That is absolutely not going to work.”

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

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