Health officials urge caution as graduation season approaches amid increased COVID cases
While health officials have reported the seventh consecutive week of increased case numbers throughout the state, many schools will soon be holding their first in-person graduation ceremonies since the pandemic began.
Superintendent Keith Hayashi said Hawaiʻi public schools reported a total of 1,053 positive cases of COVID-19 last week.
Molokaʻi Middle School shifted this week to distance learning because staff had to isolate or quarantine, Hayashi said. That’s the first time it’s happened since the omicron surge.
"Next week we have more than 40 graduation ceremonies planned across the state, with the first commencement scheduled for Monday. Our schools and students have worked hard to get to this point, and we definitely want to be able to celebrate this achievement with family and with friends," he said at a press conference Wednesday.
Each school decides the regulations they wish to implement, taking into consideration venue types and case numbers. The state has been handing out free at-home tests for people to use prior to attending school events.
According to DOE commencement guidance, masks must be worn at all times for indoor ceremonies and may be removed briefly for picture-taking.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said Hawaiʻi is still very much in a pandemic.
"We think that, 'Okay, things in general are relaxing, maybe I can be more relaxed. I'm gonna have that party. I've been waiting for three months to have.' But what I'm saying today is this is not the time to be in that relaxed mentality. Let's remember that right now is a time to really be cautious," she said.
The Department of Education does not plan to change current COVID-19 restrictions for summer school. Students will still be required to wear masks while indoors for summer classes and related activities.
Hawaiʻi is the only state in the nation that still has a universal indoor mask requirement for public school students.
The health department said it has not yet decided on its school masking guidance for the fall.
“We will continue to review the numbers and the data in the coming weeks as we move through the early months of summer," Kemble said. "We will be issuing further guidance about the fall, but we don’t have that at this time.”
Hawaiʻi was the last state in the nation to drop its statewide mask mandate at the end of March. The federal mask rule for domestic flights was also recently struck down, leaving tourists and other travelers unmasked on crowded flights.
New data released by the state shows the average case count for the most recent seven-day reporting period was 722 per day, up from 485 cases per day last week. All Hawaiʻi counties are in the yellow or medium risk range under CDC community masking guidelines.
“Hospitalizations continue to rise and ICU admissions are now also increasing, so I think this is a really important juncture," Kemble said. “Case counts alone don’t tell the whole story, but we are now seeing the repercussions for severe disease and accumulating cases in our hospitals.”