Ige, others say benefit of reopening schools exceeds the risk

State health and education leaders are committed to returning students to classrooms today, despite the latest surge of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii.

Hundreds of cases have been reported in recent days amid the growing prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta strain of the novel coronavirus.

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The state Department of Health on Monday reported a seven-day average of 317 daily cases, and a statewide test positivity rate of 6%. Hawaii County has a 7.5% positivity rate.

“We have been living with COVID-19 for a year-and-a-half now, and our experiences has shown us that in-person learning is, for most students, critical for academic and social success and overall well-being,” Gov. Ige said during a new conference Monday at Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu. “We also know it will take the entire community in order to make in-person learning safe — safe for the 165,000 students and their families, and safe for the 13,000 teachers and other staff at the 257 public schools all across the state.”

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

Ige, along with state Health Director Dr. Libby Char and interim state Superintendent Keith Hayashi, outlined the state’s plan for getting students into the classroom.

There is a “layered” strategy in place to reopen schools safely, Ige said, which includes promoting COVID-19 vaccinations among faculty, staff and eligible students 12 and older; staying home when sick; requiring masks while indoors; and good hand hygiene.

“We do know that vaccines are safe, effective and convenient to get. … So I’m asking everyone in the state of Hawaii, those who are not vaccinated, to get vaccinated to protect our children as they go back to school. Please don’t delay.”

Hayashi said Hawaii’s public schools are strictly adhering to safety protocols and mitigation strategies, and that in-person learning is critical for students.

“The CDC and Department of Health have said that K-12 schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen during a pandemic,” Hayashi said. “Right now, the state is open for business, with no other industries shut down. Our schools are ready to open as well, and again, we’ve shown we can do this safely.”

Char acknowledged the community’s anxiety surrounding the return to in-person learning, and said the state DOH has been “meticulous” in reviewing the issue and providing guidance.

“We feel that at this point, the benefit to school and kids being back in school far exceeds the risk,” she said. “And part of that is because we have so many layers of mitigation so that we can reopen schools safely. This guidance is the same guidance that has been provided to many other schools, and they have already opened, and so far we can take lessons learned from them and see that schools can be reopened safely.”

Char said there will be an “inevitable” rise in cases, regardless of when schools reopen.

“If we delay opening schools for a couple of weeks, we will see a rise in a couple of weeks. If we delay it for six weeks, we will see the rise in six weeks,” she said. “It just has to do with getting 180,000 people back together on campus.

“So, we acknowledge this anxiety,” Char continued. “At the same time, I’d like to reassure people that the Department of Education has been working really, really hard to get … the safety measures back in place so that schools can reopen safely for our children.”

In a livestream earlier Monday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island physician and parent, also addressed the return to in-person learning.

“Is it the right thing to do? Well, the one thing I can say is, it’s not right or wrong for any of our subsets of our society. It’s what people decide that they feel is best,” he said. “I’m going to understand if some parents decide it’s too risky for their child, especially if that child has a pre-existing (medical) condition. All of those children should certainly be offered distance learning. … Distance learning is a necessity for all of our kids that can’t go to class.

“People have to be respected, because it’s a scary time. But overall … education is critically important, and losing a second year would be catastrophic for our children. That development can’t be made up.”

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, however, said during a Zoom call with reporters on Monday the teachers union is disappointed to hear that state is moving forward with in-person learning, despite concerns from parents and educators.

“While former Superintendent (Christina) Kishimoto was unwilling to engage in meaningful discussions and make plans for just this type of situation, we hoped that interim Superintendent Hayashi might have taken those concerns into consideration,” he said.

“What we can’t understand is that transmission is so much higher than last year, but lots of contingencies are being removed, like making sure that students are socially distanced, or the use of shields during meals,” Tui continued. “Our members report that despite the department saying they have strict protocols, there’s already been improper mask enforcement while forcing large group interactions over the past couple of days when they’ve had faculty meetings.”

Tui said there’s already suspected virus transmission stemming from such gatherings.

“Sadly, just saying that schools are safe places does not make it so,” he said. “With 25% of new cases being children, that is extremely worrisome. Our students under 12 have no way to vaccinate themselves. But we’re willing to send them to schools, on buses and on playgrounds while this extremely contagious variant spreads.”

Tui said he asked the governor if elementary students could start the year in distance learning until the COVID numbers go down, but was rebuffed.

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“So, while our teachers have no choice but to return to work, parents — if you don’t feel school is safe for your children — you are free to exercise your right to keep your children home until you feel it is safe.”

Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.

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