On the eve of the official start of the new school year, heads of state said classes would resume on Tuesday as planned, with several security measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The doors will open despite a surge in coronavirus cases, powered by a highly transmissible variant. But educators and health officials said a year and a half of distance learning has been tough for Hawaii’s students, and it’s time to get them back into class.
“We believe that the benefits for children of going back to school far outweigh the risk. And part of it is because we have so many levels of damage control, ”said Libby Char, director of the state’s Department of Health, at a joint press conference with Governor David Ige and interim superintendent Keith Hayashi on Monday.
There is great concern that reopening campus for full face-to-face learning could be too dangerous as children under the age of 12 are not eligible for the coronavirus vaccines.
Char said delaying the reopening would do little to contain the spread of the virus.
“There will be an inevitable spike in cases no matter what time we reopen schools,” she said during the press conference at a Honolulu middle school. “It just has to be about getting 180,000 people back on campus.”
Officials confirmed concerns about schools reopening in personal mode after a record number of positive cases last week. However, they expressed their confidence that the security measures in place would be sufficient to protect the students.
The remarks reflected an unwavering commitment to getting students back into personal study.
On Sunday, Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said he is calling on the state to postpone the return to classroom learning, saying, “I think it is wiser to play it safe.”
Ige said Monday he spoke to Victorino and has no plans to change course.
“We believe it is important that our students on every island and in every county have the opportunity to return to face-to-face learning,” said the governor.
The determination represented a huge departure from that time last year when a spike in COVID-19 and pressure from parents and the teachers’ union led education officials to reopen 4th remote learning mode for health and safety reasons.
With vaccines now readily available, officials assured that safety measures were in place and urged anyone not yet vaccinated to get an injection.
“Please do not hesitate,” said Ige, emphasizing the need to follow other protocols such as wearing masks, frequent hand washing and staying home if you feel unwell.
“These are the things we can all do to help our children re-learn in person, safely and healthily,” he said, adding that “it will take a whole community to make personal learning safe for 165,000 students do”.
The state recently hit a 60% vaccination rate for eligible individuals, although rates vary widely from community to community.
Officials have not implemented a vaccination mandate for Hawaii’s 257 public schools. However, Char said there was no threshold for positive case numbers per school or complex area that would trigger a return to full distance learning.
Hayashi, whose tenure began on Sunday after former Superintendent Christina Kishimoto left, said all schools “strictly adhere to safety protocols and mitigation strategies,” but recognized cases are likely to continue to arise.
“We are still in a pandemic and continue to work as such. We know that we can expect an increase in cases as we bring more students back to campus as schools are a reflection of their communities, ”he said.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,500 teachers, said the concerns of parents and educators had not been addressed as much in trying to fully reopen schools.
“What we cannot understand is that the transmission is so much higher than last year, but many contingencies are being eliminated, such as a conference call with reporters.
In the latest estimate of Friday’s 622 positive case numbers, 25% of those cases were in children, Char said.
Tui called this number “extremely worrying”.
“Unfortunately, it’s not just to say schools are safe places,” he said, adding that parents are free to “exercise your right to keep your children at home until you feel safe.”
Some parents say they are ready to send their children back to school as the pandemic is endless.
“I have a feeling it will stay here and we will all have to live with it,” said Candice Nakamura, a mother of three, ages 8, 11 and 13. “We have to face it and deal with it. If these masks work as they say, we shouldn’t hesitate to open our schools. “
Other parents are more careful.
“Schools never closed because they weren’t the best place for children to study. There was a deadly virus. And it still exists, ”said Christy Yee, a kindergarten teacher and parent of a first grader at Manoa Elementary.
Yee, who teaches at an elementary school in the Kalihi area, said she will still send her 6-year-old to class because she is “very confident about the school’s protocols” and described her communications and protocols as “impeccable” .
At Kawananakoa Middle School, where the press conference was held on Monday in a spacious, air-conditioned auditorium, Principal Ronnie Victor said she was ready to welcome all 600 students back to campus on Tuesday.
By the spring of the final school year, only 200 students had returned to Grades 6-8, so it will be a fresh start for the school.
Only eight families have applied for distance learning, Victor said. Distance plans will also look different this year as Kawananakoa relies on a self-directed K12 / Stride Learning Solutions plan monitored by a curriculum coordinator with a weekly check-in.
Victor said she shouldn’t ask how many of her 41-person employees have been vaccinated, but encourages parents to vaccinate their age-appropriate children.
The school will open the windows in the classrooms while lines will be painted around the campus to indicate distances of 6 feet.
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