Hawaii Back to In-Person Schooling Amid Pandemic Uptick

by Edwin Quinabo

Hawaii is experiencing all-time highs in rates of COVID-19 infections. Last Friday the Hawaii Department of Health reported 1,167 new cases, the highest daily count since the pandemic started. Outside Queen’s Medical Center Punchbowl, the medical triage tent is back up as hospitalization due to COVID is just shy of also being at an all-time high.

This latest surge in Hawaii is the worst since last year when lower rates of infection forced the state to close down for business and close down tourism. 

As rates of COVID begun to dip and vaccinations rolled out this spring, State and county leaders felt optimistic enough to lax regulations, reopen the economy and begin the long walk toward recovery and normalcy.

As a part of that effort, the Hawaii Board of Education passed a resolution on July 15, 2021 to reopen Hawaii schools for in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year – seen by most educators as a major step forward after a year of K-12 virtual instruction posed multiple problems for both students and teachers. Virtual learning also passed on extra hardship for many parents of young children. Parents scrambled for daycare, opted for reduced work hours, and in dire cases, quit their jobs entirely.

The BOE’s decision to resume in-person learning is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation that K-12 schools “could and ought to reopen with the proper protocols” in place. Governor David Ige, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education (HIDOE) and Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH) have been working on a layered strategy even before the first day of school.

DOH director Libby Char said in a press conference that children need to be back in school, even with the surging case count. “There is risk involved in everything, but I think we also have to be cognizant that there is a cost to not having children in school and having them fall further behind in learning and the continued social isolation,” she said.

Tyler Delos Santos, 15 years old, 10th grader at Kapolei High school started classes on Aug. 6. “As much as I like going to school in person, I feel there is greater risk. I feel scared a little bit. But I rather go to school in-person because I am learning better. I am fine with it now, but we need to take big precautions like social distancing. I would say even before entering and leaving the classroom, hand sanitizing and washing hands [are good practices].”

Troy Julian Freitas, 9 years old, Maemae Elementary School, started on Aug. 3. Asked if he felt secure and safe to return to school, he said, “Yes, because we all wear masks, practice social distancing, and wash our hands often.”

His fear, “only some kids wear face shields that serve as extra protection against the virus,” said Julian Freitas.

Most of the 256 public schools (180,000 public school students) started the first week of August.

Since school started, there were 50 student cases of COVID infections at public schools — 35 at elementary schools and 15 at secondary schools — and 20 staff cases,” reported HIDOE.

“The total case count is higher this week, but considering the size of our organization — more than 200,000 students and employees across the department — and the level of transmission occurring in the broader community, I think it’s a testament to our schools’ safety protocols that we saw 70 confirmed cases over the past week that had an impact to a HIDOE campus,” interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a news release.While there are higher rates of children catching COVID-19, local health experts say they are not seeing a rise in severe illness requiring hospitalization.

Such cases are “extremely rare,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also a ER physician.Shannon Tan Go attends middle school at Punahou School. Her first day of instruction was on Aug. 18. She said in-person learning provides a better learning environment. “We can learn directly from the teachers instead of through a screen.”

Like Troy, Shannon likes having the ability to ask questions and get them answered if she has trouble with something.

“I do think there is a catch with the higher chance of getting the virus with in-person learning, but I believe the schools have prepared correctly for the return of students. I do feel safe returning to school as the proper safety measures have been made.”

Hawaii’s Mitigation Strategies
Gov. David Ige held a press conference to discuss the State’s safety protocols to help mitigate COVID-19’s spread in public schools.He mentions four strategies:

*Vaccinations: Promoting COVID-19 vaccinations among all faculty, staff and eligible students 12 years of age and older.

*Stay Home When Sick: Faculty, staff and students are urged to stay home when sick.

*Mask Up Indoors: Schools will ensure that there is correct and consistent masking indoors. Masks must always be worn correctly and consistently by all students and staff. The only exception is for eating and drinking. The evidence is clear – wearing masks indoors or in large groups when outdoors, is the second-best way (next to vaccinations) to protect yourself and loved ones from the virus, Gov. Ige said.

Masking up is also required in crowded outdoor situations and during outdoor activities that involve sustained close contact with other people.

*Hand Hygiene: Good hand hygiene will be emphasized in schools. Faculty, staff and students will be strongly encouraged to wash their hands with soap and water often, or at least to use hand sanitizer.A point of contention for some teachers and parents is at the moment the State does not require a negative COVID-19 test or a clinician’s note to return to school after a student finishes isolation and quarantine.

While teachers are encouraged to keep students apart or be in very small groups when needed, there is no requirement on placing physical barriers in the classroom.There are no limits on the number of students to be admitted onto a school bus.

The Governor commented on the importance of kids returning to school, “One thing we’ve learned is that in-person learning is, for most students, critical for their academic and social success, as well as their overall wellbeing.”

Although not required, these are some strategies some teachers are utilizing when possible: utilizing outdoor space, placing stickers on the ground showing kids what being 6 feet apart is, and distancing student desks 6 feet apart even if teachers must use maximum classroom space up to corners.

The most recent CDC guidance says at least 3 feet of spacing is adequate as long as masks are worn.In some school districts on the mainland, mask wear is not required in schools resuming in-person instruction.

Vaccination requirements
As the state’s number one strategy to stop the spread of the virus, it is taking a strong position on vaccination.

As of Aug. 16, all educators were required to show proof of vaccination, but those who are not vaccinated are subject to weekly testing at his or her expense and during non-work hours. The new rules are in compliance with Gov. David Ige’s new vaccine mandate for all state and county workers.

The State has been conducting school-based vaccination clinics since May this year. These clinics (which will be ongoing throughout the school year) were able to vaccinate 26,400 individuals across 109 school sites, said DOH spokesperson Brooks Baehr.

The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association estimates around 80% of teachers are vaccinated.

According to the Department of Health, 46% of the 97,148 children aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated and 58% have received at least one dose.

Students under 12 (some 216,000 kids in Hawaii, accounting for 49% of the entire K-12 student body) are not eligible to receive vaccinations at the moment. Pfizer has said it expects to apply in September for children ages 5 through 11 to get vaccinated. Moderna said it expects to have enough data to apply for FDA authorization in younger kids by late this year or early 2022.

Currently, the State has 60% of residents vaccinated.

Testing is also being pushed. Recently on Saturday, Aug. 14, the DOH held a free testing event at the Aloha Stadium. DOH officials said more families brought their kids to be tested, which is most likely related to kids being back at school. The DOH is also hoping to implement weekly voluntary testing on unvaccinated students, like athletes.

Caroline Julian-Freitas, mother of Troy who is ineligible for vaccination at this time, said, “As a family, we discussed with Troy about getting the vaccine when it becomes available for his age group. Without hesitation we decided that he will. As vaccinated parents, we believe it’s the best decision for our family. When our son gets vaccinated, it will bring us comfort and ease that we took every measure to prevent him from getting infected and prevent him from the possibility of suffering long term effects of COVID.”

For older Hawaii students who are eligible for vaccination, the DOE is currently not requiring that they get vaccinated, unlike teachers and staff.

For some private schools like Punahou, any student who is eligible for vaccination must upload their vaccination status via the school’s website or be required to test for COVID-19 on a weekly basis.

Nearly all of Punahou teachers and employees have already been vaccinated, said spokesperson Robert Gelber.

Private schools are allowed to set whatever conditions they see fit as long as they do not violate federal non-discrimination laws.

Venus Delos Santos, mother of Tyler, said she made sure her son got vaccinated as soon it was available to him.

Supporting in-person schooling
On in-person learning resuming, Valerie Tan (mother of Shannon) said, “it is always a tricky balance trying to find the right timing for when to re-open school and extra-curricular activities for in-person learning. Our situation now with current rates of vaccination and number of cases may be the ‘happy medium.’ We all need to move on and adapt to an always changing environment.

“As much as I’d like to keep our child in a bubble and keep her learning from home for safety, in person learning provides needed socialization and development of interpersonal skills. It also allows children to be in a structured environment for focused learning, and to learn from their teachers and peers. As long as the school is well prepared, strictly follows and enforces guidelines and regulations, and assures that all who are part of the school community are aware of and follows said guidelines and regulations, full time in-person learning can be safe and productive,” said Tan.

Delos Santos said she doesn’t have a problem with school resuming even as the State is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“It’s [reopening in-person schooling] the only way to gauge how well we can adapt to the new norm in whatever degree or form it takes. To face the disease head-on is the only way we can learn from it and its effects. It’s the only way we can adapt to it because society will never go back to a non-covid world.”

Delos Santos supports the mitigation strategies implemented by the State. “If you take the necessary precautions, then I say full speed ahead because I did all I could as a parent in helping my child.

“Even if I or my child would get the virus despite getting vaccinated as a result of the school opening, I still have the confidence that I did all I could, and will have had no regrets. Now if I did not take all the necessary precautions for myself, my child, and the people around me, that means I am not being responsible.”

She agrees with education experts that in-person schooling is better than distance learning, and not just for education, but “better for the mind and body.”

Why in-person or E-learning is better
HIDOE is still offering virtual learning at some public schools but it’s limited to students who have demonstrated success in virtual learning or have an underlying health condition that makes it inadvisable. It could also be available to students whose parents insist on having their children do distance learning.

HIDOE says it’s still committed to making remote learning equitable as much as possible to accommodate students who must still continue this alternative.Education experts say part of a teacher’s role is to motivate, encourage and supervise students which is best handled in person.

Experts point out some drawbacks of E(electronic)-learning: feedback is limited; it causes social isolation; it requires strong self-motivation and time management that some students lack; communication skills are hindered; it lacks one-on-one communication between teacher and student.

Troy said in-person learning makes it easier to understand the lessons. He gives the example, “the teacher is able to work with me and see me if I am having trouble [like other students].”

The strict schedule of schooling also requires students to perform better, educators says.As a parent, Delos Santos agrees with experts, “Without expectation, guidelines or a timeframe, students get lost and stray in attention span and motivation. I’ve noticed that attention to the teacher was sorely lacking with the zoom classroom. Kids were not required to keep their cameras on which was the only thing that kept them accountable. The lack of accountability yielded grades that could have been better. Also, there were some tech problems that interfered with the learning process and the productive use of time in the classroom.

“Furthermore, as a parent, the home routine was disrupted because part of it had to include some instruction. A healthy home schedule or routine involves more quality, family time rather than instruction. When schools were temporarily closed, over a year, I became a teacher and a parent. I had to instruct my child in partnership with the teacher in order for my child to achieve certain benchmarks for his grade level.

“I believe the distance learning was a necessary mandate because of the covid circumstances, but it leaves a lot to be desired as far as degree, amount, and quality of instruction and education. Tapping into a student’s academic potential is by far best done through in-person instruction,” says Delos Santos.

Not only is face-to-face communication important between teacher and student, while at school students tend to help each other out with school work.

Educators also say virtual learning could be more suited for working adults and college students, but kids still need guidance and need to develop maturity to thrive in E-learning.

An important component to building maturity is peer-to-peer socialization.

Troy said what he looked forward to in going back to school was spending time with his friends and participating in school activities.

Some differences noted as the new norm since school resumed
Besides all the new safety protocols, Tyler said “Since we haven’t been in face-to-face school for a while, everyone is like very awkward with each other, like the class is quiet. People are afraid to speak. They don’t talk much. I think it’s because they are shy and because they don’t want to spread [or give the impression of spreading] COVID.”

Students have reported fear and are taking extra precaution. “Everything I touch I am concerned. Even being close to people is concerning. I am kind of like low-key, back away, but I try not to show that I want to get away from them [other students] because then they’ll be like ‘does he not like me?’”

Parents must shift gears back to normal scheduling
Parents also have to do some adjusting now that full in-person schooling is back on track. During last year’s shutdown, Valerie said it was fortunate her daughter is older and didn’t need constant supervision. And “our work places allowed us to be bring our child to work with us during the days of remote learning so in a way remote learning worked out for our schedules.” She mentioned with school back to its normal hours, they would need to shift gears again, be flexible with schedules, and do a lot of coordinating.

Get vaccinated
Health experts say as a community, as a family, we can all contribute to the safety of kids in schools. “Get vaccinated if you can. That is our most powerful tool right now,” said Dr. Char.

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