Mask rules vary at private schools

  • Laurel Smith / The Garden Island

    Even with robust health and safety protocols in place, classes at Island School maintain normalcy as middle-school students listen to Head of School Kate Conway discuss wonder and mindfulness.

  • Laurel Smith / The Garden Island

    The elementary school at Island School practices cohorting by keeping classrooms separate to minimize COVID-19 exposure risks for students and staff. To foster community, the entire elementary school meets each day for morning meetings outside, with distance between classrooms.

  • Laurel Smith / The Garden Island

    A classroom spaces out for the elementary school community meeting on Sept. 1 at Island School. Distancing, masking and utilizing outdoor spaces are just a few of the many mitigation strategies private schools are implementing to control the spread of COVID-19.

  • Laurel Smith / The Garden Island

    A middle-school Spanish class at Island School proceeds with with masking and extra spacing between desks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least three feet of physical distance be maintained between students.

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

  1. Nonsense Reporting September 13, 2021 10:07 am Reply

    Garden Island get a life and if you are terrified of a virus with a 99 percent survival rate stay inside all masked up if you want to. It is past time to live normal lives again. Those that wanted vaccinated have gotten vaccinated. Quit worrying about what private schools are doing. They are private for a reason. Find some real news to report on. Why not report on all the people who showed up to the rally yesterday who are over the nonsense like the rest of us!

  2. Wil Dargan September 13, 2021 2:00 pm Reply

    If Jesus was a teacher or a student at ‘Olelo Christian Academy he wouldn’t need to but, he’d still demonstrate true love for others by dawning a mask. A true example of being selfless and not selfish.

    1. KnowJesusifyouaregonnamentionhim September 13, 2021 8:53 pm Reply

      Will Dargan…clearly you don’t know Jesus. Every single person that came to HIM was healed. Jesus WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN WEARING A MASK. Rather than portray a “social” Jesus read the Bible and find out who He is. I’m praying for you. Religion says wear a mask and be afraid and cater to society. Jesus says greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. He says lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. He says fear not for God is with you. Jesus says nothing shall harm you if you take rest under the shadow of the Almighty. So clearly before you comment next time it might be good to see what has already been written. Bless you and I’ll pray He opens your eyes so you can truly see.

  3. Paid Ad? September 13, 2021 9:39 pm Reply

    This seems like a paid ad. I didn’t realize that The Garden Island’s ads were for sale.. Interesting place to advertise Island School but doesn’t seem fair to tear down other private schools to do it.

  4. Nope September 14, 2021 6:58 am Reply

    They are merely reporting the facts, which your “freedom” group conveniently ignores.

    92% of hospitalizations are NON-vaccinated. That fact should be enough. What are the long term effects of the vaccine? Well the long term effect of the virus could be you’re dead, or the life long side effects that the virus causes. We had the keys to being done with this thing, but people like you choose “freedom” aka selfishness. Not only are you perpetuating the virus, when you get sick, you take an ICU bed away from someone who had an accident or a heart attack, thus you are taking away someone else’s freedom with your selfishness. And your “religious exemption” on masks is the saddest most selfish act of all. Putting your kids, and kids not your own, in danger for no reason other than you don’t like masks. No one does. What is the long term effect on children? Well your ignorant behavior is only extending the pandemic, so you can blame yourself for your sorry parenting. Ignoring science and facts shows your small world mentality. Hope you don’t take an ICU bed from a kupuna after your freedom super spreader event.

  5. Wil Dargan September 14, 2021 9:55 am Reply

    (KnowJesusifyouaregonnamentionhim):Thank you for your prayers and thoughtful comments. In scripture, God has always provided for His people when a request was prayed for. In the barren wilderness, food was needed, so they prayed and God sent them manna. During times of drought and they needed water, they prayed and God brought forth water. The scripture tells of countless perils when all else failed, the people resorted to prayer and God in His infinite grace, answered their prayers. Today is no different (God never changes). He has answered our prayer for the covid pandemic. The vaccine is a gift from God. And just like His Word, some will take it and some won’t. Eitherway, from His standpoint and mine, what matters most is what Paul shares in 1 Corinthians 13:13 (And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.)

  6. MamaTree September 14, 2021 8:14 pm Reply

    So much is wrong about this article and the subject in general: (1) I feel sorry for Olelo b/c you know what’s coming as a result of this bad press: Let’s now set our watches to how long it takes HIDOH to shut down Olelo for 2 weeks so that they can be treated like “we’re all in this together” to make the COVID-crazies on Kauai feel better and “safer” because all these COVID rules — not evidence or facts or statistics about mortality, recovery rates or comparative flu data from previous years — are the most important thing to them. (2) Poor KCA: TGI failed to mention what exactly happened to that child whose “parent” reported she saw some people not wearing masks and then her child got sick (because that’s absolute proof of causation). The child was sick but what does that mean? Sniffles? Fever? Body aches for two weeks? Where were they for summer before school (in other words, did they travel)? We, the community have a right to know, especially when you broadcast it as a community concern. You can do that without violating “privacy” as if that still exists. (3) TGI implicitly says in its piece, “See, public schools haven’t had this problem (yet)” b/c they are such super-compliers with government rules e.g., distancing, masks, documentation requirements, etc.

    The COVID-obsessed don’t think about how random this disease is (much like flu variants of the past). The COVID-obsessed don’t think about how DOH takes a false positive result and conducts contact tracing (and quarantines everyone who is a close contact), and then refuses to revoke the quarantine for those close contacts even after it is confirmed the source did NOT have COVID and hence contacts were not “in contact” with a COVID-positive case. The COVID-obsessed don’t think about how the quarantine only applies to unvaccinated but if you’re vaccinated, you can travel freely (regardless of whether you have COVID or not, until proven otherwise). Shame on the DOH for doing this to people; shame on people in the medical field who know this is going on, took the hippocratic oath, and say NOTHING. There is no rhyme or reason to any of this BS except people following stupid rules blindly without courage, thought or intellectual honesty. The 442nd must be spinning in their graves after literally fighting and dying for OUR FREEDOM so that we could absolutely squelch it over the simple fear of being asymptomatic for a disease with an over 99% recovery rate for the vast majority of people, or on average being sick for a few days, or at worst possibly dying b/c your health was severely at risk anyway (read: we are all going to die someday and we can absolutely count on it when we’re generally unhealthy or of advanced age — Just a fact of life with or without COVID).
    PS — Why not respect the meaning of the word “private”? Must’ve been a slow COVID-news week on Kauai with nothing to report about our ICUs, our COVID death rate for those without comorbidities or advanced age, or Wilcox Hospital being “overwhelmed” with the actual non-vaccinated (as opposed to the vaccinated who are sick with COVID in between shots). Where is that news? We must demand more from our “free” press, and demand that people do their homework before they interfere with our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

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