COVID-19 Isolation and quarantine times for students and staff within Hawaiʻi public schools was reduced to five days for those who meet certain conditions, state officials announced Tuesday, Jan. 11.
The Hawai‘i Department of Health updated interim COVID-19 guidance for K-12 schools to closely aligns with new guidance for schools issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cick here for details on updated guidance.
During a press conference Tuesday, DOH and Hawaiʻi Department of Education’s interim superintendent Keith Hayashi spoke to reporters via Zoom regarding the updated regulations. State epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said the new guidance helps to minimize loss of learning days while continuing to prioritize safety on school campuses through multiple mitigation strategies.
Strategies include mandatory mask-wearing, staying home while sick, social distancing and handwashing.
“The new reduced isolation and quarantine guidance support our efforts to continue to prioritize in-person learning while upholding safety protocols in our schools,” Hayashi said.
Hayashi told reporters he was proud that more than 90% of HIDOE employees are vaccinated.
“We also continue to support efforts to make vaccinations accessible in our schools along with COVID testing opportunities,” he said. “This week, we began coordinating booster shots at schools.”
As COVID-19 cases spiked over the past few weeks with the onset of the Omicron variant, Hayashi said the HIDOE continues to monitor teacher absences statewide. As of Tuesday, 12% of the teacher workforce was out.
“Approximately half are sick and half are out for other reasons like vacation, family leave, personal leave and vacant positions,” Hayashi said.
Following winter break, students and educators returned to school on Jan. 4. During the first day back in the classroom, Hayashi reported 1,600 teachers called out statewide. Preliminary numbers for this week show teacher absences slightly improved.
While some schools are seeing a drop in student attendance, Hayashi said preliminary data shows most of Hawaiʻi’s schools are holding steady, or in some cases, seeing a boost in student attendance this week compared to last week.
Kemble said there is an abundance of evidence that shows schools are the safest place for kids to be due to the mitigation efforts that have been put into place.
“COVID-19 is less likely to be transmitted in schools than in most community settings,” she said, adding DOH knows this to be true locally because of the school testing programs.
“Our percent positivity rates in our school testing programs have been consistently lower than what we’re seeing in the surrounding communities,” Kemble said. “While schools are certainly impacted by the Omicron variant, it still shows we have tools in place that can prevent transmission in school settings. When you have layered mitigation, it makes a big difference.”
School administrators and non-teaching staff are assisting in addressing the need for substitutes. Due to multiple teachers out, without substitute teacher coverage, Hayashi said there have been instances where students are supervised in the cafeteria or gym if there’s no teacher available for any one of their periods.
“For the majority of the school day, students are in the classroom and instruction is being provided,” the interim superintendent said. “Non-teacher staff from the complex area have also been deployed to help with the coverage and state office personnel are standing by to help.”
In circumstances where students had to go to the cafeteria, Hayashi said, there are different strategies used to ensure kids are still learning. Strategies include sustained silent reading. Also, he added, if students aren’t able to be in the classroom, this setting provides an opportunity to do work online other teachers may have assigned and be engaged in self-directed learning.
Kemble said the interim guidance is specific to isolation and quarantine.
“We’d like to go through and integrate this into the rest of our school guidance as a whole,” Kemble said. “We don’t anticipate major changes to mitigation strategies.”
The DOH plans to meet with school partners and update guidance.
Kemble said the DOH has heard from schools interested in a test-to-stay program. According to national trends, she said it looks promising for helping as another layer of mitigation.
Kemble said this discussion is still an evolving situation but “we’re open to discussions on this program with those interested schools.”