DOH: Masking optional in updated school guidance; quarantine, social distancing will also ease
HIDOE has yet to provide revised guidance to HSTA effective Aug. 1
News Release from HSTA, July 12, 2022
Updated guidance will make masking optional for school staff and students for the 2022–23 school year, state health and education officials said Tuesday.
In a joint announcement, state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble and Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) Interim Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong said universal masking will no longer be recommended in the Department of Health’s (DOH) revised school guidance, effective Aug. 1, when most public school students return to the classroom. Students on a multi-track calendar at Holomua Elementary returned July 8, and 10-month teachers will report to campus July 26.
“The COVID landscape has changed. We’re at a different trajectory in the pandemic at this point in time,” Kemble said, citing the widespread availability of testing, vaccines, and boosters, and fewer intensive care unit admissions and cases of critical illness. “We are beginning to see a trend towards a more routine approach to disease transmission… So with all of these strategies and continued use of other mitigation strategies in school, this is an opportunity to move forward towards a new normal, and we think this is the right time to do so.”
The DOH has not yet published its revised guidance for K–12 schools. On Monday, the HIDOE told the Hawaii State Teachers Association that DOH guidance would be released within the week, and the HIDOE would post its own updated health and safety guidance shortly after. HSTA did not expect the DOH and HIDOE to announce changes without publishing guidance.
HSTA Vice President Logan Okita, a teacher at Nimitz Elementary on Oahu, said Tuesday’s announcement means “teachers and students and families are able to have time to process that information and make decisions and have those conversations at home.”
However, Okita also noted, “We need to see a lot of this in writing to better understand what exactly is happening and what is going to be taking place. In order for the mask mandates to be lifted successfully, we need to have clear mitigation strategies in place.”
Officials noted that optional indoor masking is still recommended, especially when COVID-19 community levels are medium or high. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all counties in Hawaii are currently listed as high, except for Kauai, which is medium. And officials continue to urge staff and students to get vaccinated and boosted when possible and stay home when sick.
HSTA recommends that all Bargaining Unit 05 members continue to practice mitigating strategies whenever possible, which includes staying up to date with vaccines and boosters, and masking indoors to minimize the chances of catching COVID, especially given the ongoing shortage of substitute teachers.
Kemble notes that DOH guidance may increase in specific situations, for example, if a classroom experiences a COVID outbreak that triggers a high level of absenteeism. “That’s a situation where the DOH will be working with schools and upping the mitigation strategies to deal with the outbreak,” Kemble explained. “So instead of a general policy of everyone masking all the time, if you have a particular classroom that’s impacted by an outbreak, that class might be required to mask for the 10-day period after the last exposure in the class, for instance. So it’s a much more targeted strategy, and using that masking tool in a way that is not going to impact all of the learning activities across the entire campus.”
Close contacts who are exposed at school will no longer be required to quarantine, and social distancing will continue to ease, officials added.
Armstrong said, “It is difficult to accomplish all of the learning objectives that teachers have while trying to implement strict physical distancing requirements, and we’ve seen over time that other mitigation strategies can be used to mitigate risk. So we really are looking at trying to move towards a more normal classroom experience this fall.”
Ventilation remains a concern in many schools. Despite repeated requests to the HIDOE — our latest was Monday, July 11 — HSTA has not received updated information on school ventilation for nearly a year. HSTA will continue to push for the information as changes in masking policies make ventilation a key strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. When questioned by a reporter Tuesday, Armstrong said, “Ventilation is one of the mitigation strategies and we’ll continue to work with the Department of Health in ensuring that our classrooms do have the proper ventilation.”
Distance learning will continue to be an option. Armstrong said parents can check with their school principal to determine if distance learning is available at their school or complex area. The state also sponsors a distance learning program that currently has about 115 students, Armstrong said.