PUHI — Kealohi was looking forward to a lot of things this school year.
“Seeing my friends again, seeing my teacher again and just being with everybody,” the 5th-grade student at Island School said.
After a disrupted 2020, kids and families across the nation wanted to get back to in-person learning.
“We were all expecting it to be easier, and closer to normal,” Head of Island School Kate Conway said in an interview.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking for all students over the age of 2, staff, teachers, and visitors to grade schools, regardless of vaccination status. Hawai‘i state law goes further, requiring face coverings indoors for those 5 and older.
Private schools have more autonomy in setting policies and curriculum versus public schools that are governed by the state Department of Education. However, all schools, public and private, are subject to state law. But beyond that, individual private schools enact their own health and safety protocols.
In a survey by The Garden Island, most private schools on Kaua‘i met the state’s requirements, while others required stricter masking or went the other direction, not enforcing the mandate at all.
Island School and St. Theresa School started the school year with indoor masking requirements. Island School also required masking outdoors.
St. Catherine School required masking indoors through eighth grade and did not require masks for preschool students.
‘Olelo Christian Academy in Lihu‘e has the laxest masking policy of any Kaua‘i private school. According to the 2021-22 student handbook, ‘Teachers will adhere to and fully support parents’ instructions regarding mask usage.”
OCA declined to comment on whether or not the policy, which would be a violation of state masking rules, is still in place.
Adjusting in a worst-case scenario
Kaua‘i Christian Academy in Kilauea had a mask policy in place at the start of its school year, but it was not being enforced.
When the first COVID case arrived on campus during the first week of school, it quickly became clear that the threat of COVID had escalated beyond what any Kaua‘i school had seen in the 2020-21 school year.
“When things had seemingly improved greatly in the spring and early summer it had been easy to get complacent,” Principal Daniel Plunkett wrote in a letter urging parents to “show a sense of Christian love and unity when interacting with differing opinions,” regarding the school’s decision to improve on the wearing of masks indoors.
According to one parent at the school, on the second day of school, they observed only two students wearing masks in a class of about 14 kids. This parent, whose child became sick with COVID-19 early in the school year, did not observe any staff at the school wearing masks.
The initial COVID case at KCA was in the school’s preschool. By Aug. 11, after just seven days of classes, several preschool students had tested positive, and cases began to spring up in the elementary school.
“It’s not surprising. We all got lax. It was hard because last year we were so strict and there were no cases. Now there are,” the parent said.
Plunkett deferred to the state Department of Health for the exact number of cases associated with the school, but the department does not name individual schools or businesses when reporting clusters unless deemed necessary. On Aug. 16, the DOH did report that the county was continuing to investigate an active cluster in an educational setting, which had resulted in 37 primary or secondary cases.
As COVID spread, KCA worked closely with the DOH and quickly pivoted to address safety concerns. Both the preschool and grade-school classes shut down in-person learning for two weeks and began enforcing masking indoors.
Plunkett sees being a small, private school as an advantage.
“(We) can be nimble to make changes,” Plunkett said. “Challenges have heightened the comradery. Our staff is amazing … (they) have been very unified and solution-oriented.”
The changes made at KCA have been working. As of Sept. 9, there had been no new cases connected to the school in the past three weeks, according to Plunkett.
School policies keep changing
KCA isn’t alone in adjusting COVID-19 safety measures. Private schools across the island are making changes as community spread on the island remains at an all-time high with the delta variant at the helm.
KCA, Island School, St. Catherine and St. Theresa schools are all members of the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools. St. Catherine and St. Theresa schools are also members of Hawai‘i Catholic Schools. Both organizations have been keeping schools informed with up-to-date DOH, CDC, World Health Organization and the American Academy on Pediatrics information and guidance, facilitating opportunities for heads of schools to collaborate and share information.
Principal Wendy Castillo at St. Theresa School says that it has been helpful for her as an administrator to have these opportunities.
“We are all going through the same thing,” she said.
Castillo has appreciated how accessible HCS has been to provide feedback and individual support to St. Theresa. As of Sept. 7, St. Theresa had only had one positive case of a student who was not on campus, according to Castillo.
With new guidance in hand, on Aug. 15, St. Theresa updated its policy on masking to include masks during recess.
St. Catherine School has also made adjustments in recent weeks.
According to school secretary Geri Guino, four students have tested positive for COVID-19. The cases were suspected to be community-acquired, with two of the cases being in the same family, according to Guino. The school now requires masking in preschool classes in addition to the kindergarten through 8th-grade classes that were already masking.
Island School started the school year with one of the most cautious approaches of the island’s private schools.
As of Sept. 8, Island School had had no known COVID cases on campus this academic year, according to Conway.
“Families have gone above and beyond to keep kids home (when appropriate),” she said. Conway encourages her staff to take off work when feeling ill or suspects an exposure, too.
The priority for schools this year is to keep kids learning in person, which teachers, school leaders, parents and students in both private and public schools have echoed.
Castillo reflected on the monumental task all schools in both sectors have undertaken.
“We feel solidarity with (public schools). We are all trying. We are all in this together,” she said.
Laurel Smith, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.