Indoor masking is optional at Hawaiʻi public schools under new DOH guidance

When school begins next month, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health will strongly encourage indoor mask use when COVID-19 levels are high or medium. The department will no longer recommend universal masking in most situations.

The revised guidance goes into effect on Aug. 1, 2022 for public schools.

File photo. PC: state of Hawaiʻi, Office of the Governor.

Under the revised school guidance, the DOH will be recommending optional indoor masking, and will strongly encourage students, teachers, and staff to wear masks indoors when CDC levels are high or medium. The department is not recommending universal indoor masking in most situations. The department is also not recommending a five day quarantine for close contacts under either scenario.

Under current CDC guidelines, community level transmission is at a high rate in Maui, Honolulu, and Hawaiʻi counties. Rates are medium in Kalawao and Kauaʻi counties.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said she wanted to share the information today rather than wait for further details “so that parents, students, and educators can make decisions like getting vaccinated now before the school year begins.”

The state Department of Health will be publishing further guidance for schools in the next couple of weeks.

Dr. Sarah Kemble. PC: state Department of Health (7.12.22)

“I do want to clarify that some situations where universal or targeted masking will still be recommended,” said Dr. Kemble during a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon. “For example, if there is a cluster in a specific classroom, we’ll recommend everyone in that classroom wear masks for the duration of exposure and the quarantine period after that. We will not be recommending that students in that classroom go home to quarantine if exposed. But, if there’s a cluster in a classroom, then masks are a good idea.”

Dr. Kemble said masks are a “fantastic tool” and when used correctly, they are able to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We still want everyone to consider masking indoors–in fact, we encourage it, especially when COVID levels are high or medium,” she said, noting that right now, COVID-19 levels across the state are at either high or medium.

Health officials say we are now at a different trajectory in the pandemic with widespread availability of vaccines, which is now open to children under age 5, and testing. There’s also availability of boosters for most age groups, and high levels of immunity both from vaccines and natural infection, according to the DOH.

During recent omicron surges, there has been less impact in terms of hospital admissions and critical illness, Dr. Kemble said. “We are beginning to see a trend towards a more routine approach to disease transmission.”

Health officials say they will revisit recommendations if there is a change in disease transmission patterns and severity.

About 73% of students age 12-17 have received their first two shots, but only 26% of them have received a booster, according to the DOH.

Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong

Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong said, “As we always have, we will continue to rely on the expertise and guidance of the Department of Health when it comes to safety protocols for our schools.”

She said, “Although it was unpopular among some of our communities, maintaining universal indoor masking all of last school year allowed us to keep more students in school for in person learning. That was so important after the disruption that COVID caused at the start of the pandemic, and the impacts on learning and social and emotional health.”

Now that conditions are changing, Armstrong said she welcomes the new guidance.

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