Feds recommending teachers, students who’ve been vaccinated can go without masks

When most public school students throughout the state return to classrooms on Aug. 3, they will still be required to wear masks, state Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said Tuesday.

Speaking during a live interview with Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation program, Kishimoto said, “We are staying very focused on transitioning to the full reopening with three major health strategies still in place. Masking is one of them when you are on DOE property. The other is hand washing and the other is making sure that we are staying home when ill. If you’re feeling ill, stay home and take that precaution.

“We are being careful as we reopen to watch to make sure that we continue to watch what’s happening on the national front, but also watching what’s happening here in terms of our own COVID positivity cases,” Kishimoto added.

“We are very focused on ensuring that we have a majority of our population vaccinated amongst our educators,” she said.

Somewhere between 54 and 56 percent of Hawaii’s public school student population has been vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Kishimoto said, adding that the figure is probably higher than that.

The state held vaccination clinics at more than 100 schools since May and those school shot clinics will continue, she added.

The superintendent said approximately 80 percent of our teachers are vaccinated, and about 50 percent of school staff had been vaccinated through Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) clinics. A February survey of Hawaii State Teachers Association members showed that more than 70 percent of the more than 11,000 members who responded to the survey had been fully vaccinated, or were scheduled for a first or second shot.

“The more vaccinated students and adults we have, the safer it will be for everyone, including our students who are under the age of 12 who are not going to be vaccinated at this time,” Kishimoto said, referring to younger children who are not able to get the vaccines yet.

On Monday, Gov. David Ige committed to maintaining the mask mandate in public schools, including high schools where students have been eligible to receive the vaccine since the spring.

“The Department of Health really believes wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to mitigate the spread of COVID,” said Ige in emailed responses to questions from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “So the mask mandate will remain part of the mitigation policies and procedures for our schools for the time being, and will be adjusted as the situation changes.”

Ige didn’t say how long he expects schools to require masks, but told the newspaper “vaccination numbers, COVID case counts and science” will factor into the decision.

Guidelines released Friday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest fully vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks in the classroom.

The HIDOE said Friday it’s counting on the state Department of Health (DOH) for recommendations.

Acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble told KHON2 on Friday, “I think it’s gonna be a real challenge for schools to say you’re going to wear a mask, you’re not. So schools are going to need to think that through.”

With children under 12 years old still not eligible for vaccination, Kemble said it is important to keep the younger children protected and to be able to follow rules that can be enforced.

“My sense is for most settings, it’s going to be most practical to stick to indoor masking and outdoor masking only in situations where you were going to have prolonged close contact with others or very crowded settings,” Kemble said on KHON2.

On Friday, HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr. said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how the CDC guidelines would be implemented.

“For instance, if teachers and students who’ve been vaccinated no longer have to wear masks inside school buildings, how will school personnel verify day-to-day who can go without a mask?” Tui asked.

“Given these unanswered questions, it’s in the best interest of everyone to wear masks when they are indoors until we reach herd immunity,” said Tui, who began a three-year term as HSTA president on July 5.

“The HSTA believes it’s important for all school personnel to have sufficient access to personal protective equipment, proper ventilation, and cleaning supplies so that classrooms and school facilities are as safe as possible,” Tui added.

Ige is holding strong to his target of fully vaccinating 70 percent of Hawaii residents before dropping the majority of the state’s COVID-related safety restrictions, including indoor mask mandates.

Ige plans to extend his emergency proclamation suspending various laws and mandating safety protocols, which is set to expire Aug. 6. He also said he will maintain the state’s indoor mask mandate, despite guidance issued a month ago by the CDC that said vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in the vast majority of settings.

“We believe 70 percent is a good target for us,” Ige told the Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii on Monday. “We are making good progress.”

The delta variant, which studies have shown to be more contagious and could cause more serious illness, has concerned top health officials who say that as it takes hold, Hawaii could see an uptick in COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated. Ige said he doesn’t want to have to reverse the state’s reopening if cases do spike.

“I know that once we move forward, I don’t want to be in a position to have to step back,” he told the newspaper. “So I’m committed to maintaining the mask mandate for now as we see continued circulation of the virus in our community.”

Ige said that the pace of vaccinations “has slowed a little,” but he expects the state could reach the 70-percent threshold in early September.

Currently, 58.6 percent of Hawaii residents are fully vaccinated. But the pace of vaccinations has fallen 75 percent since early May, according to state DOH figures, and other state officials have said reaching 70 percent could be difficult. The country isn’t expected to reach that target, based on current trends, until sometime next year.