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Preschool Keeps Door Open During Pandemic, Remains Infection-Free

July 29, 2020, 7:34 AM HST
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A Kailua-Kona preschool has kept its doors open throughout the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic and remained infection-free.

While public school educators interviewed Tuesday were both astounded and pleased to hear of the school’s success, they said that the model implemented by the preschool wouldn’t likely translate to larger education facilities.

Pablo Peñaloza, preschool director of Alaka‘i Academy, said he chose to keep the school open for a number of reasons. Peñaloza said it didn’t make financial sense for him to keep the school open. However, he decided to do so for the parents deemed essential workers. With 12 staff members, the school took care of 12 students.

“I realized the school serves more than just children,” Peñaloza said. “We’re a resource for the entire community.”

After the stay-at-home order was lifted, enrollment increased. Currently, Alaka‘i has 65 students, ages 2-5, enrolled at the school.

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Peñaloza put in place several new policies to maintain the health and safety of students and teachers, he said.

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The school has instituted temperature checks at the door. Along with the regular janitorial cleaning, there is in-house cleaning throughout the day. Kids have their own toys labeled with their names that they don’t share. And for the toys that are shared, they are cleaned after they are used. Only one member of the family is allowed for pickup and dropoff.

“We do a lot of hand washing and hand sanitizing,” Peñaloza said.

The children are not required to wear masks. However, anyone who comes into the school or the lobby must have a face covering. So far, no child or teacher has come down with COVID-19.

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Peñaloza said because of the success at Alaka‘i Academy, he believes it’s more than manageable to get schools, private and public, open for in-person instruction.

“There’s a generalized fear that the island has taken as fact,” Peñaloza said.

The fact is, Peñaloza said, children aren’t generally carriers of COVID-19 and it is an illness that people can recover from.

Konawaena Elementary School (PC: Konawaena Elementary School website)

The Hawai‘i Department of Education is slated to begin the school year on Aug. 4 with teachers returning to the classroom on Wednesday. The Board of Education will be meeting on Thursday to decide whether or not to postpone bringing students back for in-person instruction until Aug. 17.

“I can’t even describe to you the level anxiety and panic of teachers are having because they have to go back to school tomorrow (Wednesday),” said Christine Olivera is a speech-language pathologist with a classroom in Konawaena Elementary and Kealakehe Intermediate Schools.

She thinks bringing students back too early is a recipe for disaster.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic in March. Gov. David Ige issued a stay-at-home order that same month in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. The action stunted the number of cases, while also crippling Hawai‘i’s economy and closing public schools to in-person instruction for the final 46 days of the semester.

As of Tuesday, the Big Island had 116 recorded cases of COVID-19, two of which were active, according to the state Department of Health. On O‘ahu, there have been 1,419 reported cases.

The reality, Peñaloza said, is the Big Island has been mostly spared and it doesn’t do the community any good to close its resources.

“In my mind, the island is facing a crisis — not really a health crisis, but an economic crisis,” Peñaloza said. “I feel schools play a critical role in helping the community recover.”

The preschool director thinks opening up schools to in-person instruction is more than manageable. Teachers want their students back, however, Peñaloza said there is an overwhelming amount of fear and lack of leadership within the school district.

“Don’t let fear stop you from doing what’s right,” Peñaloza said. “We should move on and do our best with the tools we have.”

Olivera disagreed with Peñaloza’s assessment of schools being critical for economic recovery.

“That’s on the back of teachers and kids, and that’s not our role,” she said. “I have a hard time with that opinion.”

But Olivera agreed with Penaloza’s assessment that the district lacks leadership. She commended the preschool director’s work in coming up with policies and training that seem to protect children and staff.

“If we had someone who was willing to do that for our schools, teachers would at least feel like they’ve been heard,” she said.

While Alaka‘i Academy appears to have a truly controlled setting, Olivera said, that just isn’t the case for the public schools.

“I feel like opening up the schools is going backward,” she said. “It’s putting people together in enclosed spaces.”

Olivera added she doesn’t feel like any health or safety protocols have been clearly outlined.

“I don’t know how many kids are coming back — we don’t even know what teachers are going to show up at this point,” said Olivera, adding it’s a betting game right now.

“Who’s going to get infected first — teachers, kids?” she questioned. “Who’s going to get sick and die?”

“Part of the problem too is teachers, as a profession, really care. We have hyper empathy for people and it’s hard to think that something like that could happen on our watch,” she said.

Sonya Porchér, a second-grade teacher at Konawaena Elementary School, said there are a lot of variables that are out of teachers’ hands and could create a dangerous situation. Whether students are getting dropped off or riding the bus, Porchér explained, children pass through several bubbles (controlled spaces) before coming to their classrooms.

“You hate to feel defenseless or vulnerable as an educator,” Porchér said.

Porchér believes the Big Island has been relatively safe from COVID-19 because of the community’s diligence in following health and safety measures of social distancing, wearing a face mask, and washing hands.

From additional cleaning to training parents on distance learning, Porchér still hasn’t wrapped her mind around what the school year is going to look like.

“We’re all anxious and just trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” she said.

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