Big Island schools provide COVID testing under DOH program

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Students walk past the Hilo High School sign in Hilo on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.

Nearly two dozen Big Island schools have signed up to provide COVID-19 tests to students and faculty as part of a program offered through the state Department of Health.

“To keep our schools safe for students and staff, we are leveraging all available resources to help schools quickly identify and respond to cases impacting our campuses,” state Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.

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Operation Expanded Testing is a federally-funded program free and available to students, teachers and staff at K-12 public, private and charter schools, DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr said.

As of last week, 161 public schools in Hawaii had registered for testing, and 59 were conducting tests.

The tests screen for infections, even if there is no reason to suspect those individuals are infected, he explained.

“Screening testing gives us a sense of transmission within various communities. It also gives parents a peace of mind. It helps protect schools and keep them open,” Baehr said. “Schools are critical infrastructure, and we really want to keep them open.”

According to Baehr, the program is voluntary, and parents must sign a consent form for their children to participate.

Testing is available at the schools once a week, he said. Parents also can choose to have students tested at school if the student develops COVID-19 symptoms while on campus, instead of having to get an appointment elsewhere.

As of Thursday, testing was already underway at Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary, Keonepoko Elementary, Mountain View Elementary, Naalehu Elementary, Pahoa High and Intermediate, Konawaena Elementary, E.B. de Silva Elementary, and Hilo High and Hilo Intermediate, according to information provided by the DOH.

Other schools that have signed up for the program as of Thursday include Pahoa Elementary, Keaau Elementary, Keaau Middle, Keaau High, Haaheo Elementary, Hilo Union Elementary, Honokaa Elementary, Kalanianaole Elementary and Intermediate, Kaumana Elementary, Keaukaha Elementary, Waiakea Elementary, Waiakea Intermediate, Waiakea High and Waiakeawaena Elementary.

Kalani, however, said that by Tuesday, all public schools will be registered for training to be eligible to participate in Operation Expanded Testing.

“While some schools are in a position to begin offering screening and testing for students and staff through this program, most schools are still in the early stages of ramping up the program,” she said.

Even though all schools will be registered and trained for the program, Kalani said that given the size of the program and the limited amount of resources available to support it, implementation of the testing will vary across schools and complex areas.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said during a briefing before the state House Committee on Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness on Wednesday that the DOH is working with schools throughout the state to expand school-based services related to the state’s COVID-19 response.

That includes setting up regular testing in K-12 schools throughout the state, working with the DOE to hire additional keiki nurses and public health nurses to address health needs in schools, and expanding case and cluster investigation teams to work with schools specifically, she said.

Nearly 3,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Hawaii schools since July 1.

A cluster report issued Thursday by the DOH highlighted clusters, investigated in August, at two neighbor island schools.

According to the report, a cluster of 45 cases was associated with an independent school on Kauai, and a cluster of 26 cases was identified in a public elementary school on Maui.

At the Kauai school, basic mitigation strategies — which includes vaccination of eligible students and staff, staying home when sick, correct and consistent mask use indoors and hand hygiene — were “inconsistently implemented,” the report states.

Meanwhile, 23 of the Maui cases had exposure outside of the school setting, according to the report.

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Most student cases were infected by household members, and two attended school despite having COVID-19 symptoms.

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