HONOLULU — Hawai‘i Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto said increasing the number of students returning to in-person learning during the fourth quarter, particularly in the elementary grades is possible.
“We know that face-to-face learning is so vital for our students, especially our youngest learners,” Kishimoto said on Monday. “We’ve been diligently working to maximize in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.”
Kishimoto pointed to partnership with the state’s Department of Health and epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Campbell and her team who have worked on health and safety protocols that are consistent with the latest guidance for schools.
Some of the highlights that Kishimoto discussed includes:
• Making sure that schools have at least seven days of notice before they increase in-person schooling.
• If a student is suspected to have COVID-19 they will be sent home, as well as teachers that may have been directly affected by or in the proximity of anyone that has been noted as possibly a positive COVID case, which allows DOE employees and students to work safely from home during an approved quarantine period.
• Regardless of the level of community transition, all schools are going to use layered mitigation strategies aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DOH guidance.
“And what’s really important is that we have core essential strategies that every school, every situation will ensure it adheres to. That’s making sure that everyone has a mask, staying home when unwell or going home if you start to feel unwell at school and proper hand hygiene,” Kishimoto said. “With this, we have mitigation strategies that will be applied in combination to the greatest extent possible, and this includes cohorting, physical distancing ideally at 6 feet of social distance, adjusting ventilation system, physical barriers, and cleaning high touch areas. These steps will ensure that our dedicated working teams of schools are supported and continue to feel safe as we make this transition.”
Kishimoto said DOE union leaders of Hawai‘i Government Employees Association, Hawai‘i State Teachers Association and United Public Workers are all aware of the department’s plans to ramp up in-person instruction and are supportive of these efforts.
Following Kishimoto’s virtual conference, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee, in another virtual meeting, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, teachers, parents and students were waiting for the day when more students could learn in-person.
“Our keiki have missed their teachers,” Rosenlee said. “And I can say that our teachers have missed our keiki. We were waiting for the time where the scientists and the science said it was safe. With the new CDC recommendations, we do believe that it is now time for more of our students to come on campus.”
However, Rosenlee wants to clear up the misnomer regarding reopening schools.
“Our schools have never been closed,” Rosenlee said. “Our teachers have been teaching virtually. And many of our teachers, including the special education teachers and teachers working with vulnerable students, have been on campuses face to face with our students. And there are many schools that are fully reopening for students that want to return as well. This pandemic has been hard on everyone. And the biggest thing that HSTA wanted was to make sure that it was safe.”
According to Rosenlee, the CDC changed its recommendations of social distancing.
“Specifically, they have now given the guidance that is safe, we should try to do six feet to the greatest extent practicable,” Rosenlee said. “And that was always one of the biggest barriers to bringing more students on campus. But as that is changed, we have worked with the DOE, to try to make sure that it’s safe. With this agreement that we have just had that was finished over the weekend. We do now believe that it’s safe for more of our students to return.”
Principal Stacie Kunihisa of Kanoelani Elementary School of Waipahu, O‘ahu said as her school moves forward, for the fourth quarter and beyond, there are so many factors that come into consideration for any school principal right now.
“And this is such a complexed unpredictable moment in time where everyone is trying to be sure that first of all safety is kept into the utmost priority,” Kunihisa said. “Along with that, balancing the mood moving forward for reopening our economy and supporting the family needs. And also keeping in mind the staffing, the bus transportation, and lunch services, and the many other factors that go into the opening of schools.”