Officials address school vaccination, testing implementation with Board of Education

The Hawaii State Department of Education says it is working to add school-hosted vaccination sites and school-based testing sites, which currently cover 57 percent of all complex area and public charter schools.

The Hawaii Board of Education placed the update on its Dec. 16 general meeting agenda at the request of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. HSTA firmly believes regular updates to the board and the public help to improve concerns about transparency and accountability.

According to the HIDOE, 4,400 positive cases were reported between Aug. 1 and Dec. 6 among students, staff, and contracted service providers at the HIDOE’s 257 schools and other department offices. And as of Dec. 3, 5,223 students ages 5–11 were vaccinated through 134 school-based vaccination clinics.

However, HSTA and others say the information still falls short of what’s needed to ensure health and safety throughout school communities, especially in light of a new variant.

“Not shown in the presentation is the most recent uptick in cases,” said HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr. “It is yet to be seen whether the upcoming holiday season coupled with the arrival of the Omicron variant will result in a surge in cases once more. After the disruptive Delta surge, has the department done enough to prepare for an Omicron or a new variant surge?”

Cheri Nakamura, director of the HEʻE Coalition, told the board, “once again, we are not sure what its objectives are or how its actions are designed to achieve its objectives. Regular testing is a key preventative measure, yet we only have 60% of schools participating in COVID testing. Is the DOE planning to aim for a higher percentage of schools to provide testing? Is there a plan to consider a vaccination program for eligible students?

“One HEʻE member asked, does the department have an immediate plan to pivot from all in person to hybrid instruction as the new variant surges?” Nakamura added.

Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said, “While there is still some scientific data that needs to be secured and validated around Omicron and the impact on how it’s going to affect hospitalization, is it going to strengthen in terms of the way it impacts different people? That’s yet to come, but what we’re trying to do is make sure that we have all the relationships set up so that as we learn more about it, we’re also responding to it.”

The HIDOE recently signed a contract with CVS which, in addition to the National Kidney Foundation, will staff school-based testing sites. “CVS has been very proactive in working with our schools… to set up all of the protocols and the logistics so we can implement as quickly as possible,” Unebasami said.

Unebasami says the department also implemented a voucher system that allows students to get tested at non-school sites and is allowing students to go to neighboring schools to get tested.

When asked about conversations with unions, interim superintendent Keith Hayashi informed board members that the HIDOE Office of Talent Management meets once a month with each of the unions, HSTA, HGEA, and UPW “for the unions to bring up concerns.” The superintendent added he also meets with the unions together to “address any issues collectively. We are in discussions that way and it has been productive.”

However, Hayashi and top HIDOE officials also emphasize that these meetings are “informal” and non-binding. During these meetings, HSTA continuously asks for clarification and updates on ongoing safety concerns, and frequently the department’s top officials offer no specific advice or few detailed responses.