LIHU‘E — The state Department of Health issued new COVID-19 isolation and quarantine guidance for K-12 schools that reduces isolation and quarantine times to just five days for students and staff who meet certain conditions, the department announced Tuesday.
The move aligns the state Department of Education with updated federal guidance for schools and could help alleviate staffing shortages and minimize learning disruptions for students who meet the criteria for the shorter isolation or quarantine periods.
Since students returned from winter break on Jan. 4, hundreds of unfilled substitute-teacher requests each day have sent schools scrambling to cover classes. And some teachers have reported to the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association that more than half of their students are absent.
Between Jan. 4 and 11, the DOE reported 2,741 positive staff and student cases of COVID-19 district-wide, with an all-time high of 557 students and staff reported positive on Tuesday alone.
Attendance and staffing situations are still dire but improving in some schools, according to DOE Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi.
“Most of our schools are actually holding steady, or in some cases actually seeing a boost in attendance this week, compared to last week,” Hayashi said. Teacher absenteeism is still at about 12%.
The HSTA wants to see more-consistent protocols and preparations in place for COVID surges, including more testing and a plan to temporally transition to distance learning if necessary due to student and staff quarantines. Sunset Beach on O‘ahu has already begun to transition due to staffing concerns.
The union is not advocating for a district-wide transition to distance learning, but, rather, wants decisions to be made on a school-by-school basis, taking into consideration staffing and attendance.
“Our teachers want in-person learning, too, if it’s safe,” HSTA President Osa Tui said Wednesday during a press conference. He cautioned, however, that in-person learning is not always appropriate in situations where most students are unable to attend in-person or relevant instruction is not being given due to lack of staff.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the DOE did not provide Kapa‘a-Kaua‘i-Waimea area information regarding staffing shortages or attendance after multiple requests from The Garden Island for information.
Questions regarding absenteeism, quarantines and COVID case numbers broken down by staff and students have been repeatedly deflected by school officials in press conferences and school-board meetings.
“Once again, the department is just trying to not release any information that will make things look bad, unfortunately,” Tui said. “Parents and community members are rightfully worried and concerned. And the public has a right to know some of these things.”
The DOH maintains that layered mitigation strategies make schools the safest places for students.
“There’s abundant scientific evidence that layered mitigation strategies make schools one of the safest spaces for our keiki and teachers to be. COVID-19 is less likely to be transmitted in schools than in most community settings,” DOH State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said in a release.
According to the DOH, test-positivity rates nationwide and locally are higher in the community than in schools. The positivity rate for schools for the week of Jan. 3 was 7.6%. The positivity rate for the state right now is 20.1%, with Kaua‘i at 16.9%.
According to Kemble, the new guidance considers the most up-to-date scientific information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the reality of living with the COVID-19 pandemic for the long haul.
“As we saw with many other businesses, and we’re seeing continue even their health-care settings, there also are considerations for what is a practical balance between maximizing safety and enabling critical services to continue to function,” Kemble said.
The guidance is as follows:
Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms should isolate for five days regardless of their vaccination status. They can return to school when all the following conditions are met:
• Five full days have passed since symptoms first appeared or since test was conducted;
• No fever for 24 hours;
• Symptoms have improved.
Students and staff who have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 should quarantine for five days after the last contact if:
• They have not completed their primary vaccine series (two shots Pfizer or Moderna, one shot Johnson & Johnson);
• They are 18 or older and have completed their primary vaccine series but have not received a recommended booster when eligible.
Students and staff should get tested on day five of quarantine even if they do not have symptoms.
Students and staff are not required to quarantine if:
• They are ages 5 to 17 and have completed their primary series of COVID-19 vaccines (two shots Pfizer or Moderna);
• They are 18 and older and have received all recommended vaccine doses including boosters.
Anyone who develops symptoms should self-isolate immediately and get tested.
Vaccination and testing options are available at hawaiicovid19.com.
Source: The Garden Island