Schools Still Need Virus Vigilance

Safety first. 

As children, that motto was drilled into our minds. Whether we were crossing a street, learning how to ride a bicycle, or interacting with strangers, we were told to prioritize our personal security. If we behaved recklessly, then we knew that there might be consequences to our well-being.  

To improve public schools’ pandemic preparedness, Hawai’i Department of Education officials should remember those lessons. 

While our state continues to recover from the latest COVID-19 surge, we are learning more about the Delta variant’s impact on kids. During the summer, health experts reported that youth accounted for as many as 25 percent of total cases tabulated throughout the nation. A total of over 4,100 cumulative cases involving students and staff have been reported by the DOE since July 1, 2021. 

Though case counts are steadily dropping, concerns are still being raised by parents and educators about the capacity of schools to prevent potential outbreaks. Yet, Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi continues to declare that the threat of campus-based transmission is minimal. 

It is time to put public safety before political convenience. Instead of repeatedly claiming that there is nothing for our schools to worry about, the DOE should take proactive steps to thwart future viral spread and strengthen public confidence in the department’s pandemic response. 

To begin, the interim superintendent should immediately engage in impact bargaining with the Hawai’i State Teachers Associations and other public sector unions to finalize a memorandum of understanding that covers COVID safety practices. At recent Board of Education meetings, teachers and community members have described numerous protocol violations, from mask mandates not being enforced to social distancing precautions being abandoned. 

HSTA and the DOE negotiated an agreement during the previous school year that established clear accountability procedures for enforcing safety guidelines. Updating that arrangement for the current year would ensure that breaches of health regulations are taken seriously when they are reported to school administrators. 

Additionally, the department should accelerate its “Operation Expanded Testing” program. Over 160 schools have signed up for the initiative, which expands screening to both students and school staff. Only approximately 60 schools had begun conducting tests as of September, however, in part due to supply shortages. Broadening access to testing is essential in diagnosing the extent of COVID transmission throughout Hawai’i’s public learning system, even as the state’s overall case count declines.

DOE leaders have hundreds of millions of dollars remaining from the department’s American Rescue Plan appropriation. In addition to plugging budget holes and boosting students’ social and emotional learning, the department should spend these funds on augmenting school-based COVID testing programs and amplifying distance learning opportunities for families that are concerned about campus safety risks. 

Finally, when the COVID vaccine is approved for 5-to-11-year-old children, the DOE should work closely with healthcare professionals to facilitate vaccination clinics on as many elementary school campuses as possible. Minors are still contracting the virus at elevated levels and can easily spread it to their neighbors, even if they are asymptomatic. Quickly vaccinating our keiki will prevent them from continuing to be sources of communal transmission, particularly in school districts with lagging vaccination rates. State leaders proclaim that this is their intent, but the program’s implementation must avoid the red tape and bureaucratic roadblocks that have impeded other COVID strategies.

Hawai’i appears to be turning a corner in its battle against the virulent Delta strain of the contagion. As we have repeatedly witnessed, though, the COVID virus is unpredictable. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency by positive trends.  We must remain vigilant. And we must reinforce our public education system’s medical resilience, so that our schools are places at which knowledge spreads faster than the virus.