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Indoor masking will be optional in Hawaiʻi public schools starting Aug. 1

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AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The state Department of Health announced it will change its COVID-19 guidance for schools on Aug. 1. Masking indoors will be optional in classrooms and there will no longer be a five-day quarantine requirement for close contacts.

The current guidance gives a choice between optional indoor masking and a five-day quarantine for close contacts, or universal indoor masking with no quarantine requirement.

During a Tuesday press conference, state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said the department still strongly encourages mask wearing — especially when community infection is considered medium or high. But masking will not be required.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Hawaiʻi's COVID infections are in these categories. The agency uses a combination of factors such as case rates, hospital capacity, and case counts in a specific county to determine community levels.

Kemble says the change reflects the current COVID landscape.

"We now have widespread availability of vaccines. And now that's open to children under five as well, which was not true previously," said Kemble.

Kemble also outlined the mass availability of booster shots and testing as tools to monitor the spread of COVID. She also mentioned there's a high level of immunity within the community — both from vaccinations and natural infections — after the recent Omicron surges.

"In those surges, we have seen less impact in terms of intensive care unit admissions, critical illnesses. So we are beginning to see a trend towards a more routine approach to disease transmission," she said.

The health department is still finalizing its guidance for the upcoming school year. Kemble says she anticipates the finalized recommendations to be released within the next couple of weeks.

Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong says the Department of Education will adopt the DOH's recommendations when it goes into effect on Aug. 1 — which is also the first day of the new school year.

Armstrong says the DOE will still offer distance learning options for the upcoming school year, but it is based on availability within complex areas and some schools.

"Parents can check with their school principal if the school or the complex area has a distance learning option available," Armstrong said. "If not, on our DOE website, there is the application for our state-sponsored distance learning program."

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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