Dear Punahou Families,
On Monday, we shared our intention to open the school year in Orange – a heightened alert level that meant students would alternate between on-campus and distance learning. Since then, coronavirus cases here in Hawai‘i have continued to rise at an alarming rate, leading to a review by our Pandemic Response Team.
Based on our deep concern over recent pandemic trends, our commitment to the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, and our shared responsibility to flatten the curve, we will begin our school year in Red – a high alert level that necessitates full-time distance learning for all grade levels K – 12. We will continuously monitor pandemic conditions and provide updates to families on a weekly basis. If the situation improves, we hope to shift to a level that will allow significant on-campus learning as early as September 14. Next week, grade level deans will share information and/or reminders about what this will mean for your child, including details about scheduling for when school begins on August 19.
We believe this is the right decision for the following reasons:
- Hawai‘i has sustained triple digit levels of newly reported COVID-19 cases, with a seven-day average of more than 130. Our rate of new infections has increased by 200% over the last two weeks, with a reported reproductive rate of more than 1.4. These figures make Hawai‘i a state with one of the fastest growing epidemics in the country. The test positivity has also exceeded 5% several days this week, which is a level associated with World Health Organization recommendations for governments to issue stay-at-home orders.
- The number of hospitalizations has doubled over the last two weeks, which means that our health care system will soon reach its capacity to meet both COVID and non-COVID related need. As Hawaii Pacific Health CEO Ray Vara and others have warned, this is an increasingly dire situation.
- The State has indicated that there are challenges with keeping up with contact tracing and that they have not always been able to follow up on new cases within their standard of 24 – 48 hours. There has also been uncertainty about whether the testing capacity for on-island labs can meet the demand of reporting test results in less than three days, which is essential to support effective contact tracing.
I have been in regular contact with the heads of the largest independent schools on the island, and they will also be starting in distance learning through September 14. Our decision also parallels today’s announcement by the governor that all public schools on O‘ahu will begin the year with distance learning for the first four weeks.
The current situation is clearly unfortunate. We dearly wished that we could have brought all of our students back to campus as planned. We know how much your children have missed school, and we have missed them, too. As early as the spring, we have been designing our school operations to be able to respond to the full range of health conditions, up to and including a campus closure. Our distance learning capabilities have been refined and improved over the spring and summer, reinforced by teacher training, professional development, and enhanced technology, and we are confident that we will be able to deliver the continuous, excellent education that our students deserve. We have also invested heavily in health and safety measures, which will be indispensable for the secure return of students to our campus.
To support our youngest learners as school begins, we will also provide opportunities for elementary school students to engage with their teachers in very small groups. More information about this will be forthcoming from the principal and class deans in the days ahead.
The coronavirus trends in Hawai‘i are deeply troubling, and we all have an important role to play in taking the necessary steps to stop the spread of this virus. We all must continue to practice social distancing, the wearing of face masks outside the home, personal hygiene, such as washing hands regularly, and staying home when sick.
With a sustained, collective effort, I believe we can and will return to conditions that allow for safe, in-person learning. If the state achieves a sustained lower level of new cases, a reduction in hospital utilization, and lower test positivity, indicating greater access to timely test results, we will be able to return to campus. Our Pandemic Response Team will continue to work closely with health officials to monitor the situation and will communicate with you weekly as we know more.
Thank you for your patience and understanding as we navigate this complex and challenging situation. Punahou has weathered many storms and upheavals in its history – from past pandemics to world wars and global depressions. At each turn, we have met these challenges with resilience and faith in each other, knowing that, when we stand together, we can accomplish great things. Now is another such moment, and I have great confidence that our best days lie ahead.
Michael E. Latham, Ph.D. ’86
President, Punahou School