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DOH Says School Masking Now Optional

By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor

State Dept. of Health officials announced last week that masks will not be mandatory in indoor settings at public schools this year. COVID-19 vaccines will also not be required for students. 

At a news conference last Tuesday, State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said wearing masks will be up to individual teachers and students, but the DOH “will strongly encourage indoor mask use when COVID levels are high or medium.”

According to CDC criteria, COVID-19 community level for Maui County is currently listed as high, as of July 14. The CDC uses a combination of three metrics such as new COVID cases in the past seven days, and hospital beds occupied by COVID patients, to determine a community’s level as low, medium or high. 

Public schools were among the last state facilities where masks were required. Health officials say the change in policy this school year, starting Aug. 1, is because of the wide availability of vaccines for all ages, including for children under age 5, as well as the high levels of immunity reached by infections and vaccinations during recent spikes. 

Along with not requiring indoor masking, DOH says individual case investigation, close contact identification, and quarantine of in-school exposures is now not recommended for routine in-school exposures. 

Staff and students who test positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms still need to quarantine at home for at least five days, however, regardless of vaccination status.

There are certain circumstances under which indoor masking may still be required, such as during high absentee rates, or clusters of cases, according to the DOH. 

“So instead of a general policy of everyone masking all the time, if you have a particular classroom that’s impacted by an outbreak, that class might be required to mask for the 10-day period after the last exposure in the class, for instance,” Kemble said. “So it’s a much more targeted strategy and using that masking tool in a way that is not going to impact all the learning activities across the entire campus.”

Alison Place, former acting principal at Maunaloa School who currently serves as School Renewal Specialist, said she thinks the new mask policy will bring mixed feelings at the school among families and staff. 

“The students will probably think it’s great!” she said. “Mask use was pretty consistent the past two years — along with other protocols — and Maunaloa was open face to face the whole time with no school-wide closures. The school didn’t have a positive case on campus until last November and none of the subsequent cases were related to school contacts. I can’t say definitively this was due to masks but it makes for a pretty strong argument.” 

While the DOH released its new school guidelines last week, Molokai High School Principal Katina Soares pointed out the Dept. of Education has yet to release its own policies on masking for the upcoming school year. 

“DOE schools have to wait for DOE guidance, which hasn’t been released yet,” she said adding that though the DOE was given a preview of the DOH recommendations, “we still make our own policies based on their guidance.”


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