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Despite fewer virus cases, Hawaii hesitant to open schools

HONOLULU – The principal of the only school on Lanai thought reopening with full, in-person instruction next month was a no brainer: The Hawaiian island has had no confirmed coronavirus cases, and breezes flow through many of the school's classrooms.

But even there, faculty pushed back, said Lanai High and Elementary School Principal Elton Kinoshita. In the end, only kindergartners and first-graders will meet face to face daily.

While Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of cases per capita in the country and many schools have open-air campuses, the challenges of returning kids full time to classrooms may still be insurmountable. Many residents live in multigenerational homes and fear for their elderly relatives, many schools lack the classroom space to allow for desks to be 6 feet (2 meters) apart, and the state is a major tourist destination and could see a rise in cases if restrictions are eased.

As a result, most schools in Hawaii will institute the hybrid approach being adopted in many parts of the country, with students alternating between attending in-person classes and online instruction. Some schools will have full face-to-face instruction for younger grade levels, but only a handful of schools will offer a full-time, in-person return.

Schools in the only statewide public school system in the nation were scheduled to reopen on Aug. 4, but the teachers union led an effort to delay that. The district and the union agreed to a new date of Aug. 17. The Hawaii Board of Education will consider whether to approve the delay at a meeting Thursday.

The union, Hawaii State Teachers Association, doesn’t think the district has done sufficient planning for various scenarios, including what happens if someone gets sick or how to pivot to totally remote learning.

“There is a lot of fear among teachers,” said Corey Rosenlee, union president, noting that about 30% of teachers are at least 50 years old. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at risk of developing more severe illness if infected.

As of Wednesday, the state reported 1,865 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.

Teachers are not the only ones who are concerned. Burke Burnett, father of an entering eighth-grader at Kaimuki Middle School in east Honolulu, says many of the school's slatted windows have been shuttered, and the school uses air conditioning.

Burnett, a scientist who is pushing for a phased reopening of schools, said he also supports delaying the start of the school year, so the district can conduct assessments of classroom ventilation. Indoor spaces with poor ventilation are generally considered less safe than ones with open windows.

Hawaii's status as a premier tourist destination is also raising concerns. The state has been requiring all travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days. Officials planned to allow travelers to bypass the quarantine if they tested negative no more than 72 hours before travel but delayed implementing the plan to focus on reopening schools, said Gov. David Ige, a Democrat.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said it’s currently safe to start the school year, but she cautioned against letting guards down — even in open-air classrooms.

Being outside is helpful, she said, but people still need to maintain distance and wear masks.

And she recognized that wouldn't always be easy. “If anyone’s ever sat there in the hot sun in a mask, you feel like you’re suffocating,” said Park, who is also a pediatrician and a mother.

A handful of schools in Hawaii, like Manoa Elementary in a lush Honolulu valley, are in a prized position and plan to fully return to in-person instruction: The school has generous classroom space, and breezes flow freely through wide-open windows and doors.

Lanai High and Elementary School will take advantage of the fact that it sits at an elevation of about 1,500 feet (460 meters), where the morning mist and pine trees cool the campus, allowing most classroom doors and windows to stay open. But the school is stretched for classroom space and so can still only offer limited in-person instruction if desks are to be kept at a proper distance, said Kinoshita, the principal.

He would also like to see a delayed start to the year, partly because he’s nervous protective equipment shipments will be delayed, particularly desk shields coming from Japan.

State Sen. Kurt Fevella, a Republican, is opting for all online classes for his daughter, who will be a junior at the state’s largest school, Campbell High, in suburban Honolulu.

His daughter, Abigail, is worried about infecting her 80-year-old grandmother, who lives with the family, and how wearing a mask will affect her own asthma.

“I’m kind of afraid that kids will get sick,” the 16-year-old said. “My school, we have a lot of kids.”