Opening schools without having to wait until a month passes with no positive COVID-19 tests. That’s what the state health director says he’s hoping to work out with the state public schools superintendent.

Health experts say there are safe ways to roll out in-school attendance again whenever stay-home guidelines for other areas of the community are eventually relaxed, and once COVID-19 is mostly under control but not necessarily eliminated.

A recent state Department of Education announcement caught teachers, parents and the health department by surprise: No school reopening until there are no new cases for 4 weeks on the island.

“We would expect to be living with COVID-19 for a long time, and to have to wait for the last case to have occurred and another 28 days probably is not going to happen, so I believe that was really a placeholder,” said Dr. Bruce Anderson, director of the state Department of Health. “We hadn’t had a chance to talk with the superintendent about the issue.”

Always Investigating asked the Department of Education to explain the rationale, and the source of the guidance they received, for the decision. A spokesperson for the Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told KHON2: “The guidance was based on initial information from the CDC when this pandemic started to reach our state. As with all guidance during this evolving situation, it is subject to change as we get more information from county, state and federal officials.”

KHON2 asked the health director if he is aware of any other state’s school system that is pursuing a four-weeks-past-final-positive stance?

“I talked to Christina Kishimoto about this and we’re planning to meet this week about criteria that might be followed, and I know she is receptive to looking at other alternatives, things that we could do sooner than that,” Anderson said.

The DOE spokesperson told KHON2: “We anticipate that a decision will be made this week regarding the remainder of the school year, and HIDOE’s plan for reopening schools will be further clarified at that time.”

The DOE posted a 30-page document online last week titled “HIDOE Guidance for Long-Term School Closures,” which includes the four-weeks-past-the-last-positive reference (page 22 – Download PDF here if link is not working, and see the * section below for important updates *).

That document includes CDC links which lead to school closure advice — none of which states a four-weeks with zero-cases requirement. The CDC goes into detail about the benefits of various durations of school closures, but does not dictate a set timeline for pauses prior to reopening. The CDC provides guidance for safe ways schools can operate even in areas with continued COVID spread.

*Note: On 4/15 just one day After KHON2’s story originally ran 4/14, the DOE changed the original document

and they replaced it with a new posting that eliminates the 4-week reference. On this reposted replacement it now states on page 22 “Reopening Schools After a Prolonged School Closure – This section will be updated by April 21, 2020” where the 4-week reference used to be.

“We are looking to them (CDC) for advice on how to get through this as quickly as we can,” Anderson said of the CDC, “and they are providing important feedback for us on some of the options we have available to us. We’re going to have to work our way through this carefully but it should be a priority.”

Anderson explained various ways re-opening could be possible.

“I think we’re going to probably look into reopening the schools in a step-wise manner, not all at once,” he said, “but we would be possibly restricting activities and the schools to eliminate large gatherings, assemblies, activities when people gather together which has in the past been very common.”

“Teachers continue to work from home, ensuring student needs are being met while school facilities are closed.” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the teachers union representing 14,000 public and charter school educators across Hawaii. “We believe any decision to reopen schools must be made within the context of it being safe to do so.”

“I think there are ways we can do this without threatening the health of Hawaii and we just need to be careful and measured about how we go about it,” Anderson said. “We’re not there yet. We need to come up with some clear criteria, some steps that we can take to allow for the reopening, and then of course we’re going to have to back off if we find that cases increase. That’s what other states and countries are doing, and I think we’re learning as we go, and we just need to be flexible as we move forward.”

The Department of Health says a main criteria for opening anything beyond essential businesses and organizations is the readiness of hospitals and the healthcare industry to deal with any sudden clusters of positive COVID cases.

“The healthcare facilities need to be ready to handle cases,” Anderson said. “Without that we’re not going to be able to open schools, open businesses or anything, so having them have really good infection control practices, make sure that they can handle people when they’re sick is critical to reopening in any way.”

He says recent lower positive test numbers, a high rate of cases moving into the recovered or released from isolation category, and open hospital capacity for everything from ventilators to intensive care and general admission beds are all moves in the right direction.

“Reopening of businesses is very important, too, but that’s largely dependent on whether the schools can open,” Anderson said. “If people have to take care of their kids at home, they’re not going to be able to go back to work. I think reopening our schools is really and is going to help us reopen the rest of the state. Without opening the schools, we’re stuck, so I think that’s something we’re going to be looking at sooner rather than later here in Hawaii.”

KHON2 is following up with more details on how online school can be delivered more effectively meanwhile, including closing gaps on connectivity and device access, and how to adequately service special needs and other populations while campuses are off limits.