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Amid surge in cases, schools push forward with in-person classes

State officials say return to face-to-face learning crucial for students

Maui High School math teacher Shawn Mongenyip remotely teaches students how to solve equations on Feb. 26. After months of distance learning and isolation from classmates and teachers, students are returning to daily in-person classes this week despite growing concerns over the spike in COVID-19 cases. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

After more than a year of remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students return to campus for in-person classes this week under a layered back-to-school safety strategy that officials say is essential for progressing forward even with the recent surge in cases.

Despite some reluctance among parents and teachers, Gov. David Ige said that he’s committed to the state’s plans for reopening schools and having in-person learning because it’s a “significant first step for our entire community.”

“In-person learning for most students is critical for academic and social success and overall well-being,” Ige said during a news conference on Monday afternoon at Kawananakoa Middle School Auditorium on Oahu. “We also know that it will take the entire community to make in-person learning safe for the 165,000 students and their families, and safe for the 13,000 teachers and other staff at the 257 public schools all across the state.”

Keith Hayashi, interim state Department of Education superintendent, said that the mitigation strategies outlined in the back-to-school program are intended to keep students and teachers safe as they return to campus.

The health and safety protocols for school administrators and students include wearing face masks, social distancing, practicing good hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting, staying home when sick and minimizing exposure outside the classroom, as well as supporting the state Department of Health with any contact tracing efforts.

Vaccinations are encouraged for students and staff who are eligible.

“In-person learning contributes to the overall well-being of our students from the availability of social and emotional support resources, to food security through our school meal programs, to extracurricular activities,” Hayashi said. “We are still in a pandemic and we continue to operate as such — we know a rise in cases is expected as we bring more students back to campus.”

For the families interested in continuing distance learning programs, Hayashi said that they are encouraged to contact their schools or complex area superintendent to see what options are available, but “being in school is most important.”

Over concerns that some youth might be academically behind due to an extended time away from the classroom, Hayashi said that public schools will issue assessments to determine if the curriculum needs adjusting “to help support our students in those respective areas.”

Although there is a push to begin school in person, some remain reluctant.

Following new data on the Delta variant showing it can spread as easily as chickenpox and recent reports that the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate increased 163 percent over the past two weeks, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino asked to postpone the return of in-classroom learning until the impacts of the current COVID surge on Maui County’s health care facilities can be assessed.

Even though it’s rare for children to become seriously ill from COVID-19, Victorino said in a news release that “our health care facilities are already being challenged by the recent surge of infections, so I believe it is wiser to err on the side of caution.”

“In the meantime, I urge the unvaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible, for their own health and for the protection of our keiki,” he added.

However, Ige said that he informed Victorino on Monday morning that “we were ready to start in-person learning at all of the Maui schools, just as we are across the state.”

They will discuss more “specific concerns” in the future to determine if further action is needed for Maui County, Ige said, but “we do believe that it’s important for our students on each island and every county to have an opportunity to return to in-person learning.”

Despite the recent surge in cases, Ige does not anticipate that schools will ever revert back to 100 percent distance learning, but the appropriate departments will continue to monitor pandemic-related factors throughout the school year.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association said during a news conference later in the afternoon that despite their concerns, educators will return to the classroom for their students.

“While we disagree with a lot of what’s being said, our members will go back because our students are our number one priority, and if they are saying we have to (go back), then our teachers are going to do everything they can to keep students safe,” HSTA president Osa Tui Jr. said. “(Teachers) feel that their hands are tied, that it’s out of their hands, basically, to keep their students as safe as possible.”

The HSTA represents 13,500 public school teachers statewide, with about 11,000 having received the vaccine or planning to receive the vaccine.

The association had requested that the departments implement more extensive protocols than the ones listed in the handbook for the coming school year, but Tui said that they were “rebuffed.”

“We’re disappointed to hear today that parent concerns and educator concerns were not taken into consideration as the Department of Education punches headfirst with their plans, and have no plan to shut down schools no matter how high the numbers surge,” Tui said. “What we can’t understand is that transmission is so much higher than last year, but lots of contingencies are being removed, like making sure that students are socially distant, or the use of shields during meals.”

Many middle and high school classrooms also host up to 30 to 40 kids per class, which makes social distancing and rearranging desks “not possible.”

Keiki under the age of 12 are also not eligible for the vaccine, making the reopening of elementary schools and possible exposure to the virus another stressor for families and teachers, he added.

“Sadly, just saying that schools are safe places does not make it so,” he said. “With 25 percent of new cases being children, that is extremely worrisome.”

HSTA members have also reported that there’s already been improper masking while “forcing large group interactions over the past couple of days when they’ve had faculty meetings,” which has now led to suspected transmission from some of the meetings.

However, DOH and DOE officials say they have been working closely and diligently on return-to-school protocols, concluding that the benefits of bringing kids back to campus outweighs any risks.

“Part of that is because we have so many layers of mitigation so that we can reopen schools safely,” DOH Director Dr. Elizabeth Char said during the state’s news conference. “There will be an inevitable rise in cases no matter when we open the schools. If we delay opening schools for a couple of weeks, we will see a rise in a couple of weeks. If we delay it for six weeks, we will see the rise in six weeks. It just has to do with getting 180,000 people back together on campus.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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