The state Department of Health issued guidance for schools, both public and private, to transition to at least some in-person learning.
Until now, the DOH deferred to the general guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when pressed for information on when schools could reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hawaii public school students have been distance learning since the beginning of the school year, and will continue through the full first quarter, which ends on Oct. 2.
However, it will be up to each complex area to decide whether schools will return to in-person classes for the second quarter of school starting Oct.12.
The DOH guidance provides thresholds on when schools can operate in-person or when they should close and transition to online learning only.
There are three different levels of learning that complex-area superintendents can choose from. One is learning from home, which is full distance learning. Another is blended learning where students take turns between being in school and learning at home. The last option in in-person learning when students are fully back on campus.
The DOH prioritizes in-person learning for younger students.
“When we talk about a gradual increase of on-campus access, individual school plans could include ... prioritizing our youngest learners, who may be struggling with virtual learning to come onto campus first, as one example,” said School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.
According to the DOH thresholds, there can be in-person learning if there are under five COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people over 14 days on any island.
But if that number rises above six, elementary school students can still attend in-person classes, but secondary school students would transition to online.
If that case number rises above 36 per 10,000 people, all students would move to distance learning.
Kishimoto says these thresholds are meant to guide the schools and are flexible.
The DOH guidance also suggests strategies like installing physical barriers when 6 feet of distancing isn’t possible.
The teacher’s union said they were not consulted on the reopening guidance.
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee wants schools to continue with full distance learning through the first semester.
“Right now, every major school district is either closed and doing distance learning, or the ones that have tried to open have had just huge amounts of cases that have occurred and had to close,” he said.
“New York with less than a 1% positivity rate, decided to go to distance learning because they know that were they to try to open up their schools, there would be an explosion of cases.
"What we have to look at is the data. In this case, has any school system similar to Hawaii been able to open up for in-person learning and be able to do that without an explosion of cases? The answer is no.”
Rosenlee says since the end of June, there have been 89 COVID-19 cases within schools--even with very few students on campus.
The DOH guidance does provide specific protocols that schools should follow if a student or staff member becomes infected during the day. It includes isolating and sending home the sick individual and those with whom he or she may have come into contact.
The state Department of Education has been reporting on COVID-19 cases by complex area each week.