COVID testing in Hawaii schools are off to a slow start

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — COVID screening at Hawaii K-12 schools is off to a slow start, and some supplies that are meant for mass testing are being held back for staff or symptomatic kids.

KHON2 asked the Department of Health (DOH) for weeks for a list of which schools are doing widespread COVID testing.

Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8

DOH finally gave it to KHON2 earlier this week. Right away, parents saw some red flags.

“My kids go to Nanaikapono Elementary. Oh my gosh, there’s a yes,” explained Carla Masaniai, a parent, as she recalled thinking when she saw the school’s name on the list of schools that are testing. “So I was like, wait a minute. I asked my kids: Did you get a letter from school? Were you supposed to get a letter? I checked their folders every day and nothing.”

There are 161 public K-12s on a list of schools that are signed up for the federally sponsored Operation Expanded Testing (OET) and about half are marked “yes” — as in they have already begun widespread frequent screening, according to the DOH. Parents are concerned they have not seen it, nor have they been told anything is coming.

“If I didn’t see the news, I would have never known,” Masaniai said. “That’s how I look at it. Where’s my notice? At least tell me this is what we’re going to do, or this is what’s going to be offered.”

A DOE spokesperson told KHON2 this particular school is only using coronavirus tests if kids are symptomatic — which has been offered twice and was turned down each time. The school is also making the test available to teachers who are not vaccinated.

KHON2 asked the DOH about that, and a spokesperson said: “OET is intended to provide screen testing for a broad number of students, faculty and staff. It is not intended to be used as diagnostic testing for individuals experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.”

OET is just one path to on-campus screening. The DOH went out to local vendors in July to set up a separate program called ELC that was supposed to launch in some schools by the beginning of September. The State’s top epidemiologist recently told Always Investigating that about 100 schools had registered for ELC, but the DOH still has not given us a list of those schools, telling us instead: “This program has not yet begun.”

DOH said the National Kidney Foundation, which runs the mass screening at Honolulu’s airport, was awarded the neighbor island contract, and “negotiations are underway with a selected vendor to administer tests on Oahu.”

That is frustrating to parents, especially in Nanakuli where the OET is not implemented as intended and the ELC does not have a vendor.

“We have the highest amount of positive cases,” Masaniai said. “Literally the school is the next street over for us. If we want to get tested, we have to go drive all the way to Waianae Comprehensive Center.”

The DOE told Always Investigating that all public schools will be “registered for training” to be eligible for OET by Tuesday, Sept, 21, but added: “Given the size of this program and the limited amount of resources available to support it, the implementation of the testing will vary.”

The Feds require resources to be shared with charter and private K-12 schools. We found out the DOH met with the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools on Aug. 12 and the Hawaii Charter School Commission on Sept. 1 to outline test options. They said 13 charter schools and 16 private K-12s are now enrolled in OET.

The State has received tens of millions of dollars for various school testing and COVID-prevention programs — which began in 2020. DOH said only about 3,000 OET tests total have been administered statewide, so far, explaining “the program is still in its infancy.”

One shortcoming of the federal OET is that it relies on school personnel to administer it.

A Hawaii National Guard spokesman said their help had been sought but: “The Request for Assistance was sent back to HIEMA for cancellation. I think it needs to be rewritten and separated into two RFAs. At this time, there is no request from the DOE for the Guard to assist with COVID testing and screening. The Hawaii National Guard is standing by and ready to work with the DOE if a Request for Assistance gets published by HI-EMA.”

The vendor provides the staffing for the state ELC testing program. DOH said vendors are also required to provide weekly COVID testing numbers once they begin testing.

Find more COVID-19 news: cases, vaccinations on our Coronavirus News page

We will continue to follow up as the programs get underway.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Hawaii News

More Local News

Trending Stories