Officials: Starting Aug. 1, masks are optional for public school students
Masks will be optional for Hawaii public and charter school students starting Aug. 1, according to officials from the state departments of Health and Education.
“We will no longer recommend universal masking in most situations,” State Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said Tuesday. “We will be strongly encouraging students, teachers and staff to wear masks indoors when CDC levels are medium or high.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s medium and high classifications for COVID-19 risk are based on current hospitalizations as well as case rates for communities. Currently, all counties throughout Hawaii are labeled as medium or high by the CDC.
Quarantine measures also will be adjusted. Students exposed to COVID-19 will not be required to complete the five-day quarantine, Kemble said.
Adjustments will be made on a case-by-case basis regarding classrooms with high case rates or exposures.
“For example, if there’s a cluster in a specific classroom, we will recommend everyone in that classroom wear masks for the duration of exposure and the quarantine period after that,” said Kemble. “We will not be recommending that students in that classroom go home to quarantine if exposed.
“That’s for in-school exposure,” Kemble clarified. “Household exposures would still be recommended to quarantine for five days and return with a mask for days six through 10. That’s general guidance from the CDC and general State of Hawaii guidance as well.”
Kemble said reasons for the change in policy included the widespread availability of vaccines, including for those under the age of 5, the availability of boosters for most age groups, high levels of immunity from both vaccination and infection, increased testing and a lower number of ICU visits resulting in critical illness.
“The COVID landscape has changed,” Kemble said. “We’re at a different trajectory in the pandemic at this point in time.”
Additional revised guidance for schools will be published on the DOH and DOE websites in the coming weeks.
The current DOH masking guidance, which continues until Aug. 1, provided schools with two options: optional indoor masking, which included quarantining students for five days following close contact with COVID-19 on campus, and universal indoor masking, where those who came into close contact were not required to quarantine.
“This helped satisfy our goal of in-person learning because fewer people had to quarantine,” Kemble said.
When asked about adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of mandatory vaccinations for students, Kemble said “at this time, there is no proposal on the table for requiring COVID-19 vaccines for school entry.”
Roughly 73% of students age 12-17 have received their first two shots, but only 26% of those have received their boosters, Kemble said.
“Now is a really good time to boost,” she said. “Parents, please take this opportunity to vaccinate your children.”
Distance learning will be offered to students in the fall. The DOE currently offers a statewide distance learning program, which has roughly 115 students. Individual teachers and schools can offer additional distance learning options as well.
“Some complex areas and some schools have their own distance learning programs, and we also have a state-run virtual learning program that is open to all students who apply in K-12,” said DOE Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong.
With masks soon to be optional, the DOE plans to utilize classroom air ventilation to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.
“Ventilation is one of the mitigation strategies,” Armstrong said. “We will continue to work with the Department of Health in ensuring that our classrooms do have the proper ventilation, what that is, and monitor that we are following that guidance.”
Both students and staff are welcomed to continue wearing their masks on campus during the fall semester.
“Please understand masks are a fantastic tool, and when used correctly, they are able to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Kemble said. “We still want everyone to consider masking indoors, and in fact we encourage it, especially when COVID levels are high or medium.”
Armstrong added schools have an ample supply of at-home test kits available, and encouraged parents to check with their school staff to secure additional at-home testing kits.
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