Over the last month, the Omicron variant caused COVID-19 cases to surge. New daily cases in Hawaii have been in the thousands since the end of December. This affected all aspects of society, from travel and tourism to restaurants and businesses. However, schools were one of the hardest-hit areas by the spike in cases.
At the end of December, Omicron cases sharply increased in students. In the following month, nearly a hundred Kaiser students tested positive for COVID, according to the Department of Education’s COVID case record. All of these students had to quarantine, as well as unvaccinated students who were in close contact with them or within three feet for more than fifteen minutes. This severely disrupted school as some classes had many absent students simultaneously. Additionally, thousands of teachers and school staff have been out, causing many schools to be understaffed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines for quarantine and isolation. The CDC advises quarantining if you test positive for COVID or if you have symptoms of COVID. You should also isolate if you come into close contact with someone who had COVID and are unvaccinated. A close contact for adults is defined as being within six feet of someone who had COVID for at least fifteen cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period. A close contact for children in a school, provided everyone is wearing masks properly, is defined as being within three feet of a person who had COVID for fifteen cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period. However, the CDC states that vaccinated individuals who come into close contact with someone who has COVID do not need to quarantine, provided they have no symptoms. Regardless, they should take a COVID test 5-7 days after exposure.
With COVID cases disrupting students and staff, some schools have begun considering a return to distance learning. At the worst of the Omicron wave, over two thousand teachers and staff were out every week. This caused a few schools to briefly return to distance learning, including Waianae Intermediate, Sunset Beach Elementary, and Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kauai, according to Hawaii News Now. However, none of these breaks in in-person learning were for more than a week, for the worst of staff shortages. As COVID cases drop, it is unlikely that any schools will return to distance learning in the near future. The Department of Education does have a rough outline for when a return to remote learning might come. Keith Hayashi, the Hawaii schools superintendent, announced several factors that could determine if a school stops in-person learning, such as staffing shortages, the inability to provide essential services like breakfast and lunch, or not being able to properly supervise students during breaks. However, the Hawaii State Teachers Association argued that they were not made aware of these factors during the worst of the wave, and that there should be a more concrete template for a return to distance learning.
The Omicron wave had a major impact on schools. From COVID cases skyrocketing in students and staff to new CDC guidance on quarantine to a possible return to distance learning, schools faced major changes during the Omicron wave.