HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told school districts nationwide on Friday, Feb. 12, to open schools safely and as soon as possible. Always Investigating reports on what has and has not happened in Hawaii since new federal guidelines came out.

Hawaii is well under the lowest risk of transmission category in the new CDC school guidelines, but the state departments of Education and Health have yet to update the reopening plan. Some say the state should target a fully in-person, on campus fourth quarter.

Hawaii’s public schools have been following a matrix since last year that set learn-from-home, blended or in-person class based on average numbers of cases per 100,000 and positivity rates — both of which have been dropping statewide.

The CDC told schools: “It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services.”

“It’s a very big deal,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. “What they are saying is that it is safe to open the schools in areas where we have very low COVID, and the truth is that we have very low COVID.”

The rate in Hawaii is so low that all of the islands now qualify for what the CDC says is the safest ‘blue zone,’ with a low risk of transmission.

The Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Health (DOH) are still using different parameters, built in part on now-outdated CDC guidance but also local input. The DOH and DOE tell Always Investigating they are not ready to jettison the local model just yet.

“HDOH and partners are reviewing the CDC guidance to decide whether Hawaii’s school guidance should be updated, and if so, in what ways,” state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said. “The intent behind the existing school guidance was to help Hawaii’s school communities reopen as safely and quickly as possible. This continues to be our guiding principle.”

A DOE spokesperson said: “HIDOE schools use multiple sources to determine when and how to safely bring students back to campus for in-person learning….At this time, 74% of students statewide are spending all or part of their instructional time on campus.”

Some say Hawaii could safely get to 100% on campus soon.

“Families and children are so excited to come back to school,” said Lois Yamauchi, president of Parents for Public Schools. “So it’s very hopeful, and I think people are very happy to see folks getting vaccinated, including teachers.”

Nearly 6,000 — more than half — of Hawaii public school teachers got their first or second vaccine doses and thousands more appointments are lined up. Other schools in the private and pre-K sectors have been in session in person for nearly a year.

“We have private schools open for the most part, we have preschools open for the most part, and neither of those things have caused spikes in cases,” Schatz said. “You’ve got Roosevelt High School that’s open for the most part. So this is doable. I’m not saying it’s easy.”

“We believe that as more teachers get fully vaccinated, their concerns will not be as high and our schools will be safer to open,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association union. “Not everyone can get vaccinations, or they’re concerned for their own health. For students who cannot go back to school or for teachers who cannot, there has to be a distance learning option for them.”

“A lot of families in Hawaii are multigenerational. Although the 75-year-olds and above have been vaccinated or have been given that opportunity, we still have a lot of older folks who didn’t make the 75 cutoff,” Yamauchi said. “Given those kinds of circumstances, I think we can’t just say, ‘Okay, let’s open the schools and everybody go back.’ I think it really takes some consideration of all the different variables. But of course, people are anxious to get back, the children really need to have in more interaction with their friends and their teachers. I think everyone is aware that it’s a high priority.”

Education advocates are pushing for a new reopening plan sooner than later

“We are in agreement, and this is teachers in the group as well, that let’s go on the assumption that this virus or this pandemic is going to be with us for a while, just deal with it,” said Ray L’Heureux, president of the Education Institute Of Hawaii. “So therefore, let’s start over and say, okay, how will we deal with this and how do we get kids back in school? I don’t think there’s a plan.”

Sen. Schatz said, he has been in touch with the governor, lieutenant governor, health director, superintendent and teachers union to move forward.

“If we’re going to make this decision happen, we have to start to do the logistics. We have to make the curriculum changes. We have to communicate with the broader public, parents and teachers. We have to accelerate the vaccination,” Schatz said. “We have to make sure that schools themselves are equipped for a COVID era. All of that is achievable. But if we don’t start now, then we’re going to lose the opportunity to salvage the fourth quarter.”

Always Investigating asked ‘can all of this be pulled off in time to come back to school fully in person after spring break?’

“I don’t know, but I think it’s a good goal, and I think that we should, as they say, get caught trying. Let’s go for it,” Schatz said. “Let’s try to listen very deeply and carefully to school personnel. Let’s talk to parents who may have reservations. Let’s listen to the best public health science on this question. But we at least owe it to these children to explore this possibility aggressively.”