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Hawaiʻi DOE Continues to Lead With In-Person Learning, Says COVID-19 Mitigation Strategies Are Working

Virus Outbreak School desk covid elementary school
Matt Slocum/AP
In this March 2021 photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Hawaiʻi public school officials say more than 9,300 students are currently enrolled in distance learning, and that schools continue to vet requests from parents preferring that option.

But the state Department of Education says this model doesn’t work for all schools or students, and that full in-person learning is still the safest option.

Despite more than 2,500 COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year in July, DOE Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi says mitigation strategies such as daily wellness checks, automated notifications, and on-campus testing are working.

"Looking at the numbers that we have in our schools, they are significantly less than the numbers of COVID cases in the surrounding community," Hayashi said. "So we want to be sure to get that information out to everybody. That perhaps one of the safest places to be is in our public schools."

The department also requires weekly COVID-19 testing for all unvaccinated employees, which is estimated to include at least 2,400 active workers at DOE schools and offices statewide.

For students under the age of 12 who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, distance learning may be the safest option.

But DOE Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami cautioned that student learning could take a hit under the distance learning model.

"In fact, there were times when students were absent for multiple days or weeks…I do know that principals are working with families to vet whether or not that student will be able to do well on distance learning," Unebasami said. "But because of our past experience, we know it may be a struggle for a student to learn on distance learning."

The DOE launched a State Distance Learning Program that currently serves 625 students — 9,337 students are receiving distance learning through their schools or school complexes, as of Sept. 3.

But the most urgent challenge for the department is the lack of school bus drivers.

DOE officials warn that school transportation will be limited and could even be suspended in the next few weeks if drivers don’t return to work, or replacement drivers are not certified.

The shortage could impact students on O’ahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island, but the problem is particularly challenging on the Kona side of the Big Island, says Randall Tanaka, the department’s head of facilities and operations.

"If I get a driver who calls in sick tomorrow, I mean it’s so tight that I don’t have the capacity to flip a driver in because there’s no bench," Tanaka told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

The DOE is looking at buying county bus passes, offering mileage reimbursements, and possibly renting vans to arrange carpooling.

The DOE couldn’t say which bus routes would be impacted, but they urged families to find alternative school transportation in the coming weeks.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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