HONOLULU (AP) – The principal of the only school on Lanai thought reopening next month with extensive in-person tuition would be a breeze: there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus on the Hawaiian island and a breeze is blowing in many of the school’s classrooms.
But even there faculty pushed back, said Elton Kinoshita, director of Lanai High School and Elementary School. In the end, only kindergarten teachers and first graders meet face to face every day.
While Hawaii has one of the lowest fall rates per capita in the country and many schools have open-air campuses, the challenges of getting kids back into classrooms all day may still be insurmountable. Many residents live in multi-generational homes fearful for their elderly relatives, many schools lack classroom space to keep desks 2 meters apart, and the state is a major tourist destination and could see growth in cases where restrictions exist are relaxed.
As a result, most schools in Hawaii will adopt the hybrid approach used in many parts of the country, with students alternating between in-person and online classes. Some schools offer face-to-face tuition for younger grade levels, but only a handful of schools offer full-time face-to-face return.
The reopening of schools in the country’s only nationwide public school system was scheduled for August 4th, but the teachers’ union tried to delay this. The district and the union agreed on a new date on August 17th. The Hawaii Board of Education will meet on Thursday to see if the delay should be approved.
The union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, does not believe the district has adequately planned for various scenarios, including what happens when someone becomes sick or how to adapt to completely remote learning.
“The teachers are very scared,” said union president Corey Rosenlee, noting that about 30% of teachers are at least 50 years old. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at risk of developing a more serious illness if infected.
As of Wednesday, the state reported 1,865 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.
Teachers aren’t the only ones affected. Burke Burnett, father of an eighth grader entering Kaimuki Middle School in east Honolulu, says many of the school’s slatted windows have been closed and the school is using air conditioning.
Burnett, a scholar who is pushing for schools to gradually reopen, said he also supported delaying the start of the school year so the district can assess classroom ventilation. Indoor spaces with poor ventilation are generally considered less safe than those with open windows.
Hawaii’s status as a major tourist destination is also a cause for concern. The state has been requiring all travelers to quarantine themselves for 14 days. Officials planned to allow travelers to bypass quarantine if they did not test negative more than 72 hours prior to travel, but delayed implementation of the plan to focus on reopening schools, Democrat Governor David Ige said.
The state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said it was currently safe to start the school year but cautioned against abandoning the guards – even in the open air classrooms.
Being outside helps, she said, but people still have to keep their distance and wear masks.
And she realized that it wasn’t always going to be easy. “If someone has ever sat in a mask in the hot sun, it feels like suffocating,” said Park, who is also a pediatrician and mother.
A handful of schools in Hawaii, like Manoa Elementary in a lush Honolulu valley, are in a valuable position and plan to return fully to in-person tuition: the school has spacious classrooms, and the breeze flows freely through wide-open windows and Doors.
Lanai High School and Elementary School will take advantage of the fact that it is located at an elevation of 460 meters, where the morning mist and pine trees cool the campus and most of the classroom doors and windows are left open. However, the school is designed for classrooms and therefore can only offer limited in-person tuition if desks are kept a reasonable distance apart, said Kinoshita, the school principal.
He also wants a delayed start to the year, partly because his deliveries of nervous protective equipment, especially desk shields from Japan, are being delayed.
State Senator Kurt Fevella, a Republican, opts for all online classes for his daughter, who will be a junior at the largest state school, Campbell High, in suburban Honolulu.
His daughter Abigail is concerned about infecting her 80-year-old grandmother who lives with the family and how wearing a mask affects her own asthma.
“I’m afraid that children will get sick,” said the 16-year-old. “My school, we have a lot of children.”