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Scaled-down Punahou Carnival will not be open to the public

Punahou School campus
Punahou School/Facebook
Punahou School

The latest COVID-19 variant has put a damper on yet another local festival. The Punahou Carnival set for Feb. 4 will not be open to the general public, as the school is just coming off of a high student and staff absentee rate due to the omicron variant.

Punahou President Mike Latham spoke to The Conversation about how the school is weathering this latest surge.

Mike Latham punahou school president
Punahou School
Punahou President Mike Latham


On the current state of in-person learning and COVID-19 among the Punahou community

MIKE LATHAM: We've actually been on campus with in-person learning and all of our extracurricular activities and athletics, performing arts, and really the full range of things that we do that add into student life, really, since about October of 2020. So we've been running continuously for about a year and a half in that setting. And so far, I think we've done pretty well. Certainly (omicron) is much more highly contagious. And certainly, we've seen a greater number of cases than we did before. I think that's reflective of the broader trends across our community. But we've been really fortunate in that the numbers themselves have remained low enough that we've been able to notify anyone who may have been potentially exposed. And the numbers of actual positive cases on campus have remained comparatively low, especially given our very large size — we have almost 3,800 students. So that's been really helpful. So when we have had some members test positive within the school community, it's been a case that we've been able to manage. And really, we've had great compliance and cooperation from families. Kids stay home when they're sick, that's made a big difference. We don't see any clusters or multiple cases emerging in classrooms. And then what we're really seeing more are isolated cases largely from home exposures or things that are happening outside of the school world.

On some criticism from parents about late notifications of COVID-19 exposure

I think some of that's really reflective of the volume. And again, out of an abundance of caution, we notify anybody who has been in a class with someone who has subsequently tested positive. And so you might imagine, for example, a class of 30 students, and maybe a student has several of those over the course of the day. And a single student may be on the other side of the room amid that class of 30 students. Now the CDC definition of close contact is someone within about three feet for at least 15 minutes in an indoor space, but we're going to notify all 30 of those kids, even if they are potentially nowhere near that student because we feel that we're doing so out of an abundance of caution. And frankly, it's very hard to pinpoint exactly where a kid sits in each classroom over the course of the day. That means that the volume of notification and traffic simply increases. And so I think, in the beginning, the numbers were very high, and we did scramble a bit to try to ensure the most timely notification that we could. I think we've got a much better approach now, as really all of our markers and numbers have been on the downward slope, which is also really encouraging.

On the absentee rate peaking alongside the omicron variant

Our aggregate absentee rate peaked around Jan. 7, and we had on the order of 10% of our students out. Now, of course, that includes students who are out for non-COVID-related absences — could have been a student who was sick for some other reason. Maybe the family was traveling, maybe there was some other factor that emerged, but that was certainly higher than we normally see. But those numbers have now trailed back — so that certainly within the junior school, grades K-8, we're seeing absence rates which look about normal for typical operations of the school. In the academy, they're still a little bit high, but they're also trending downward as well. And looking back over the past 10 days or so, really, we've had almost no cases in which we had to send an exposure in kindergarten and first grade, very few in grades two through five. Pretty small numbers in the middle school as well. And then in the high school, we've varied between two, five, occasionally six notices that we've had to send out due to an infected individual on campus. But again, we've seen almost no evidence, or very little evidence that we can see, of transmission. So that's good. That means that the things we're doing to try to manage and control the virus are actually working — and a lot of those basics in terms of masking indoors and out, hand hygiene, and effective communication, and staying home when you're sick — that works. And we're fortunate that our vaccination rates are very high. So we've really pushed and encouraged families to vaccinate.

On vaccination rates among Punahou staff and students

Within the employee population at Punahou, we have over 97% of our employees are now vaccinated. And our student population numbers are similar. In the high school, I'd say it's about, depends a little bit on the grade, but between 95% and 98% vaccinated. Even in the lower grades, we still have vaccination rates that are typically well above 80%, oftentimes heading up toward 90%, even for grades K through six — so that's all really encouraging. And kids are getting boosted. We recently had the Hawaiʻi Pacific Health vaccination bus on campus. On the order of 250 more people got shots in the arm. And that's all good. You know, I think that reflects the fact that the messaging is working. And we're really trying to stand on the science.

Punahou School carnival
Punahou School
An undated photo of the Punahou Carnival.

On adapting the Punahou Carnival for a second year

We are running a much more scaled-down carnival than we normally would. Last year at the height of the pandemic, before vaccine use was widespread, we had to run one that was really very scaled-down and built almost entirely upon sort of drive-thru and takeout of food and other carnival items. This time, we will have an in-person component, which we feel good about. Everybody in attendance will be masked and vaccinated, or have tested within the past 48 hours. This year it will be a single-day event instead of two days. And it's also going to be limited to students, their immediate families, our employees, and then a small number of alumni volunteers. And we've consulted with the mayor's office. We've created a designated eating area that will be outside — and ideally we'll have family clusters and cohorts separated from each other there. That's the approach that we intend to pursue. But we'd like to still deliver an in-person experience, but do so primarily as an extension of the school day and achieve the things that the carnival really has come to represent: people working shoulder to shoulder, enjoying the collaboration and the team spirit that it promotes, creating an opportunity for student leadership — as the carnival is really led by our junior class — and then finally raising money for financial aid.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 26, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
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