DOE Explores Viability of Reopening Elementary Schools for In-Person Learning in Fourth Quarter
February 26, 2021, 6:37 PM HST
* Updated February 26, 6:47 PM
The state Department of Education is looking into the possibility of reopening elementary schools for in-person instruction for the final quarter of this school year.
“Our tri-level leadership team is exploring the viability of being able to safely open all, most or some of our elementary schools for daily in-person learning during the fourth quarter,” said Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto in a statement this afternoon.
Kishimoto discussed reopening plans for the state’s youngest learners in an effort to determine if the department can provide them with an opportunity to have some in-person instruction before the academic year concludes.
“This will take tremendous planning and effort in a short amount of time to ensure any reopening plans continue to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff,” said Kishimoto, noting that the fourth quarter begins on March 22, following the conclusion of Spring Break.
“We are putting together a detailed plan, and will continue to engage our partners and discuss where we are during the March 4 Board of Education meeting,” she said.
Dr. Sarah Kemble, state epidemiologist, sent a letter to US Senator Brian Schatz and Department of Education colleagues today in support of the DOE’s efforts to reopen schools for in-person learning.
“The Hawaiʻi Department of Health recognizes multiple health benefits of children and attending school in person, including first and foremost the fundamental links between education and long-term health outcomes,” Dr. Kemble wrote. “In-person instruction is particularly important for younger children and those with special educational needs. Social and emotional support resources made available on school campuses are also critical to the health of our keiki, and for some families, food security is provided through school meal programs.”
She said all of these factors must be considered in the overall health benefits of in-person learning.
“As we have learned more about COVID-19 and schools, we have also learned that schools are not, as initially anticipated, amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission. Rather,” she said, “schools are one of the safest environments for children when it comes to COVID-19. Schools that have implemented mitigation measures are able to control COVID-19 transmission better than many community settings, where children may interact in less structured ways or attend gatherings with their families. For all of these reasons, DOH supports the Department of Education in returning to in-person learning as soon as possible.”
According to Dr. Kemble, the DOH published guidance for schools in September of 2020, and updated this guidance in October of the same year.
While the intent was to outline mitigation in school settings and suggest thresholds for moving between different learning models, she said these thresholds are provided as a “framework” and are “not meant to be prescriptive.”
“DOH has reviewed the newly released CDC guidance and finds it is very similar to existing DOH guidance as far as defining risk thresholds and in the types of mitigation measures recommended,” Dr. Kemble wrote.
According to the letter, Dr. Kemble acknowledged that not every school can accomplish 6-foot distancing at all times while bringing classrooms back to full capacity. “We encourage those schools to implement all OTHER mitigation measures to the full extent possible, to provide a layered mitigation approach that will still maximize safety.”
Health officials say that while vaccination of teachers and staff is not a prerequisite for in-person learning, it is being offered statewide, providing increased readiness.
Dr. Kemble called this transition for elementary students appropriate and said it “can give schools confidence in their ability to move forward with bringing older students back to campus as well.”