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DOH guidance calls for masks in classrooms

Recommendations released with school around corner

School buses sit in a row at the Central Maui Baseyard in September. With the start of the new school year just around the corner, the state Department of Health released new guidance for schools that includes screening testing, indoor mask-wearing and promoting but not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Promoting vaccinations for all staff and eligible students, screening testing and mandatory mask-wearing in the classroom are some of the measures the state Department of Health is recommending as schools prepare to start the new academic year.

Released Monday, a little over a week before Hawaii public schools get back in session, the Health Department’s guidance focuses on bringing students back to the classroom, acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said during the department’s news conference on Monday. She added that the reopening thresholds and learning models that once offered direction on blended distance and in-classroom learning are no longer included.

The state Department of Education announced last week that it is providing full distance learning options for some students, with programs varying by school.

Teachers will be back in the classroom on Wednesday, with the new school year for students beginning Aug. 3, though this also depends on the school.

Aligning with state rules, the DOH guidance retains the indoor mask-wearing for all, even for those who are vaccinated, which is stricter than Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance advising that masks be worn indoors by people who are not fully vaccinated. Some states are struggling over the issue of whether or not to have all students mask up.

Kemble

Kemble recognized the difference with the CDC but said “in our guidance for operational reasons and because of the equity issues involved and the ability for schools to implement, we believe in having all students regardless of their vaccination status and staff wear their masks when they are in an indoor setting.”

Outdoors, masks should be worn if there is crowding or prolonged contact, Kemble said.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Osa Tui Jr. said members are still processing the guidance released Monday. But he added that teachers “are committed to making their classrooms as safe as possible for their students,” and that the organization supports the universal mask mandate.

During a HSTA news conference, Tui said it was also important to have enough personal protective equipment as well as distance learning options for students, as having fewer students in the class can also leave more room for social distancing.

But what he doesn’t want is for the state to require teachers to instruct in person and online simultaneously, as that did not work well for either teachers or students last year.

A checklist reminds Baldwin High School seniors to bring school supplies and complete their wellness checks as they returned to campus in March.

Interaction should be limited to students and teachers only and large staff meetings with teachers should not be in person Tui said, adding what they don’t want is a COVID-19 outbreak among teachers that would force many of them to quarantine.

Another issue HSTA is watching is how schools will accommodate students in the cafeteria, noting that students do not need to wear masks when they eat.

While vaccinations are not being required for teachers, Tui said that if they were to become mandatory, then the rest of the school population should also be vaccinated in order to make it work. He added that if vaccinations were mandatory the schools could see issues with needing long-term substitutes, as some teachers have reservations about the vaccines.

DOH’s new guidance released Monday includes a push to promote the vaccine as a “core essential strategy” to reduce COVID-19.

Currently 57 percent of eligible students (ages 12 to 17) have initiated the vaccination process with 45.4 percent completing their vaccination, said DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr.

As for concerns over some students not being eligible for the shots and possibly acquiring COVID-19 with the rising cases, Kemble stressed the importance of people who are around young children to get vaccinated.

“As both a parent and a pediatrician, my primary concern about the rise in cases and the Delta variant in particular has really been about the risk posed to these children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” Kemble said. “We do know children under 12 can be infected with COVID-19 and we see them infected in increasing numbers with the Delta variant and we also know they are able to transmit COVID-19, although most of the risk of transmission comes from unvaccinated adults.”

State Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said principals were asked during a recent meeting if they might be interested in having a vaccination site at their school or working with a vaccination clinic in the community to promote the shots. The DOE is developing a list of schools who may want to host vaccinations, she said. There were also shot clinics over the summer at various schools.

“The key update in the new guidance is including COVID-19 vaccinations as a core essential strategy,” said Rebecca Winkie, Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai complex area superintendent. “We ask all our families to get every eligible person in their households vaccinated from age 12 and up. Layered with existing campus safety precautions like mask-wearing, hand-washing, ohana bubbles and open ventilation, every vaccinated family member will help to ensure a safe return for all students to in-person learning.”

Another new element in the DOH guidance is screening testing, which would be used to identify infected people who are asymptomatic and do not have known, suspected or reported exposure to COVID-19. People who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in screening testing. Schools may consider screening testing of those who are not fully vaccinated for sports, extracurricular or other high-risk activities, such as football, band or singing.

Other additions in the guidance include using physical distancing in school settings as an additional mitigation strategy. The guidance pointed out that several studies from the past school year show low COVID-19 transmission levels among students in schools that had less than 6 feet of physical distance when the school implemented and layered other mitigation strategies such as the use of masks.

The guidance calls for maintaining at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms “when possible” along with maintaining at least 6 feet of physical distance between students and staff and between staff members who are not fully vaccinated “when possible.”

When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, DOH calls for implementing various mitigation strategies to the extent possible.

To view the full updated guidance for schools, visit health.hawaii.gov.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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