DOH updates COVID-19 guidance for schools a week before new school year

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Hawaii Dept. of Health (DOH) released an updated COVID-19 guidance for schools on Monday that includes core essential strategies and multiple mitigation strategies, with a week left before schools return to in-person education.

With COVID-19 cases going up, there is uncertainty about what returning to classrooms will look like. There were 163 coronavirus cases reported in Hawaii on Monday, bringing the state total to 40,822. The state now stands at 59.8% of vaccinated residents.

Last week, there was some clarity with the Dept. of Education outlining distance learning options. At least 12 elementary schools in the central Oahu school district offer it. However, six complex areas will not offer distance learning due to low demand; some schools will also offer both.

Below is a summary of changes to DOH’s COVID-19 guidance for schools:

ADDITIONS

  • Promoting COVID-19 vaccination as a core essential strategy.
  • Physical distancing in school settings as an additional mitigation strategy.
    • Maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, when possible.
    • Maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance between students and staff, and between staff members who are not fully vaccinated, when possible.
  • Screening testing as an additional mitigation strategy.
  • No requirement for a negative COVID-19 test or a clinician’s note to return to school after isolation and quarantine.

UPDATES

  • Updated mask guidance for indoor and outdoor settings.
    • Indoors: Masks must always be worn correctly and consistently by all students and staff. The only exception is for eating and drinking.
    • Outdoors: Students and staff do not need to wear masks in most outdoor settings. Masks should be worn in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people. Schools may elect to require that masks be worn in outdoor settings to simplify procedures for identification of contacts when a person with COVID19 infection is identified.
  • Sports and extracurricular activities, risk-based approach.
  • Definition for a student close contact in a K-12 indoor classroom setting.

DELETIONS

  • Physical barriers.
  • Limits on number of students to a seat on school buses.
  • Reopening thresholds and learning models.

The first official day for teachers is Wednesday, July 28, then just six days later, kids will return to campus.

“My primary concern around the rise in cases and the Delta variant, in particular, has really been about the risk posed to these children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” said acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble. “We do know that children under 12 can be infected with COVID-19 and we’re seeing them infected in increasing numbers with the Delta variant. We also know they are able to transmit COVID-19, although most of the risk of transmission still comes from unvaccinated adults. So I do think it is critically important that those who are going to spend time around young children not yet able to be vaccinated, be vaccinated if they possibly can.”

The Hawaii Department of Education admitted maintaining a three-foot distance would be difficult on bus transportation. “What that means is that we need to have protocols around the bus transportation, but students will be sitting in the same row as other students,” explained Phyllis Unebasami, Deputy Superintendent.

Vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases will not have to quarantine or isolate, and according to the guidance, students won’t need a negative COVID-19 test to return to school.

The DOH is also hoping to implement weekly voluntary testing on unvaccinated students, like athletes.

“These are people who aren’t necessarily sick,” Dr. Kemble explained. “They’re just going about their regular business. That weekly testing can give you a sense of how much disease is actually circulating in your school community. It can also pick up disease early before an outbreak has a chance to gain a foothold.”

She said it allows the DOH to take action if positive cases are detected and to begin investigations to prevent further spread.

One teacher at Iao Intermediate School on Maui said not many parents opted for distance learning this year at her school.


She said she is for the new year even though most of her sixth graders won’t be vaccinated because they’re not eligible.

“A lot of our students won’t be vaccinated either because they’re too young,” explained sixth-grade teacher Nicole Heinlein. “Or the sentiment I’ve heard from a lot of families is that they’re waiting because they feel that maybe it’s not as safe for younger people.”

She said the six-foot distancing would have been difficult to accommodate for her classroom.

“My biggest class has 15 students, but I have a small classroom,” she explained. “So last year, set up six feet apart, I could only have eight desks. So if, if we were to keep the six feet, then I wouldn’t be able to accommodate all of my students in person. So the three feet, even though it’s gonna feel tight, and it’s gonna feel weird. At least all of my students will be able to be in the classroom together.”

One concern she has is making sure all students have accessibility to supplies.

“Students aren’t going to be able to share pencils and scissors anymore,” Heinlein added. “They need to have their own. So that’s going to be an issue for our students whose families can’t afford to buy all of those supplies. A lot of teachers end up buying supplies for students or using our classroom funds that supposed to be used on consumables. We’re going to be using them to buy supplies for our students. Also, with my class, being a language classroom, I have a lot of books, and usually, classes share those books. So I’m going to have to think about how we can maybe alternate, so I don’t know so that students aren’t sharing as many things.”

As for vaccines, she said it’s a family decision.

“I’m not going to think differently about students who are not getting vaccinated,” she added. “At the same time, still teaching students how to find reliable sources. Tik Tok, and YouTube aren’t where I get my scientific research from, and you listen to doctors and biologists. I think that that’s really important.”

“We’re teaching students how to be critical thinkers for themselves, how to find reliable information, and not telling them what we think they should do or how they should act, but how to find the best resources for themselves,” Heinlein concluded.

Click here to read the DOH’s COVID-19 Guidance for Schools.

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