Return to Learn

The Department is working closely with state and federal agencies to safely reopen campuses for the 2020-21 school year. Please continue to check back here for updates. We will be adding details and information about what staff, parents and students can expect when school reopen in the fall.

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Updated May 5, 2021

Health and Safety
​School Design
​Equity and Access
​Staff Capacity
​Family and Community
​Contingency Planning
Faculty and Staff Training
​Memos & Announcements
COVID-19 Updates
RTL Metrics


The state of Hawaiʻi is required to plan and prepare for disasters and emergencies that may result from a wide variety of threats and hazards. Established in June 2019, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education's (HIDOE) Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) is an all-hazards plan that establishes a single, comprehensive framework for the coordination of authority, responsibility, and support from HIDOE. When directed, we will take the appropriate actions to mobilize and deploy resources to assist in life, safety, and property protection efforts in accordance with the State of Hawaiʻi Emergency Operations Plan (HI-EOP). The Pandemic Contagious Virus Plan provides a comprehensive set of actions HIDOE will take in dealing with any pandemic threat to our schools and offices. 

Return to Learn: School Reopening Plan is the Department's specific response to the impact of the COVID-19 health pandemic on our schools. It articulates the scope of work required to respond to health and safety issues while implementing the Hawaiʻi State Board of Education's call to action for our school communities to give hope, act with kindness and work toward togetherness in preparing to reopen schools. 

All department personnel are expected to be familiar with the contents of the emergency plans for their office, complex area and school. Staff members tasked with specific duties under this plan must ensure procedures and resources are in place to successfully execute these functions and participate in training and exercises to ensure they have the knowledge and experience to perform their respective roles.  

We also developed a detailed Principal Handbook for our school leaders that will help guide them on implementing our Return to Learn reopening plan. Our public schools are the central hub within each neighborhood of parental engagement and student success, thus our principals and their school teams will be an important source of information during these changing times.

The plan will continue to evolve, incorporating lessons learned from actual experiences, ongoing planning efforts, training and exercise activities, and senior leader guidance.

Financial Strategy 

Hawaiʻi continues to cope with the escalating fiscal uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, including a steep decline in tax revenues that fund the state's budget. This has a significant impact on the Department, whose operations comprise nearly one-quarter of the state's general fund budget.

The Department prioritized 10 areas for COVID mitigation: summer learning, CTE-aligned student internships, devices for learning, connectivity for devices, distance-learning training, and staff differentials; and on the operations side, cleaning, health and safety, and transition safety nets.

HIDOE Core Assumptions for Transitioning to a New School Model

The core assumptions initially developed for opening schools remain relevant and have been modified slightly for transitioning between learning models. They serve as guiding principles to support decision-making throughout the HIDOE tri-level structure as schools, complex areas and state offices navigate the changing COVID-19 circumstances in Hawaii and the corresponding impacts on the school system.  

  1. The core operations of public education and learning models implemented at schools must adjust as national and local agencies respond to the health pandemic and move our state toward eventual recovery. Impact levels may vary by county or island.
    The information below includes considerations from the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state of Hawaii and Board of Education (BOE) for schools to consider and to assist with decision-making for increasing or decreasing on-campus learning. Schools and complex areas must consider the unique conditions of the community regarding the impact of COVID-19 as well as the decisions made by policymakers about the gradual opening of the state.
  2. The transition phase design should be led by school and complex area leaders in collaboration with their school community. Each transition should include justification for: 

    1. the developmentally appropriate needs of their learners;
    2. Prioritization of students with vulnerabilities to learning (e.g., SPED, EL, early elementary, significant transitions years – kindergarten, sixth, ninth, and 12th grade); and
    3. Increasing the number of students on campus by determining the impact on workforce, modifications to facilities use, and other mitigating factors. These factors include but are not limited to a school’s master schedule, assignments, and the rotation of in-person learning, and assurances that the school will be able to implement the CDC health and safety mitigation strategies: 
      1. Consistent and correct use of masks (exceptions will be made for students with disabilities who may be unable to tolerate the wearing of a face mask).
      2. Social distancing to the greatest extent possible.
      3. Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
      4. Cleaning and disinfection.
      5. Support with DOH contact tracing by providing the necessary case and close contact information. (The verbiage has been modified from the CDC language to accurately reflect the role of HIDOE with cases impacting staff and students).

        For each of the mitigation strategies, the following are required:
        1. Training of all staff and students;
        2. Cycle of review and reminders while school is in session (e.g., monthly reminders, or as needed);
        3. System for monitoring and reporting compliance to the mitigation strategies;
        4. Articulated corrective action measures.
    4. Decision with assurances to the above and data on enrollment, method for delivering instruction, attendance, and other factors that were used to determine the transition phase design. 
  1. Communications with strategic partners and stakeholders (staff, parents, and community leaders) during the planning process and before implementation (e.g., affected unions) should be included in the timeline for the transition phase design. If changing models and/or changing working conditions — including the continuation or termination of teleworking agreements — through OTM, the Department will notify and consult with all unions.
  2. Target start dates for transitioning between learning models will be determined by schools and complex area leaders phasing in the school’s selected model. At least two weeks notification will be given to parents and the school community.

Board of Education (BOE) Resolution

Pursuant to the BOE resolution adopted on June 18, 2020:

"BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board decrees that the Department may consider distance learning and hybrid learning equivalent to in-person learning for purposes of calculating instructional days and student hours and meeting the requirements of Section 302A-251, HRS, provided that the Department issues clear directives to schools and guidance to families and the public regarding how Department schools must calculate instructional days and student hours in distance learning and hybrid learning settings…"

School models will reflect a culture of care that is consistent with the BOE principles of giving hope, acting with kindness, and working toward togetherness. Thus, school models will demonstrate:
  1. Adherence to the health and sanitation directives to ensure the health and safety of our students, employees, families, and community members. 
  2. Priority for students who have challenges with online learning or need additional support to be successful academically for on-campus learning. 
  3. Flexibility as schools address facilities and workforce capacity and health and safety guidelines to provide supervision and optimal learning conditions for their most vulnerable students or those identified by schools as high priority (for example, students in grades PreK-1 or students who have been difficult to connect with during distance learning). Models will be designed to align within a complex area to support families with learners in multiple schools to the greatest extent possible.

Health Policy Guidance
New guidance from DOH and the CDC to specifically assist schools with decision-making during this phase of the pandemic have recently become available. As the Department continues to evaluate and vet these resources, the data provided from these medical sources will be used by HIDOE and complex area leaders to understand the conditions impacting their local communities and their schools.

At the local level, school guidance issued March 15, 2021 by DOH includes metrics outlining five levels of community transmission of COVID-19 by island that would trigger corresponding learning model parameters for schools to consider and to assist with decision-making.

DOH Learning Model Parameters:

​7-day Daily Average per 100,000 population, by Island*

​Percent Positivity

​Consider the following Learning Model



In-person learning​



​In-person learning for elementary students; blended learning for secondary students



​Blended learning for students



Blended learning for elementary students; learning from home for secondary students​



​Learn from home

​* Hawaii metrics for school reopening will be posted every week at:

The testing positivity rate is defined as the percentage of all tests reported that are positive. Tracking percent positivity along with the number

Given the likely association between levels of community transmission of COVID-19 and risk of COVID-19 exposure in schools, a first step in determining when and how it is safe to reopen involves assessing the level of community transmission. School administrators, working with local public health officials, should assess the level of risk in the community and the likelihood of a case in a school facility, the likelihood that a case would lead to an outbreak, and the consequences of in-school transmission.

CDC recommends the use of two measures of community burden to determine the level of risk of transmission: total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days; and percentage of nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), including RT-PCR tests that are positive during the last 7 days. The two measures of community burden should be used to assess the incidence and spread of COVID-19 in the surrounding community (e.g., county) and not in the schools themselves. If the two indicators suggest different levels, the actions corresponding to the higher threshold (in Table 2) should be chosen. The transmission level for any given location will change over time and should be reassessed weekly for situational awareness and to continuously inform planning.

In addition to the DOH and CDC guidance, the Governor's Reopening Hawaiʻi Plan outlines five response phases during the pandemic.

State Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience:

​Stay at Home

(Major Disruption)

​Safer at Home 

(Moderate Disruption)

Act with Care

(Minor Disruption)


(Minimal Disruption)

​New Normal

(No Disruption)

Online distance learning and instructional packets

Distance learning will continue.

Face-to-face instruction is provided in compliance with CDC and DOH guidelines for vulnerable learners for whom online learning is not appropriate.

Distance learning will continue.

Face-to-face instruction is provided in compliance with CDC and DOH guidelines for vulnerable learners and early grade levels (K-2; SPED PreK). 

Based on an evaluation of operations, personnel, and facilities, face-to-face instruction may include additional groups of students.

Face-to-face instruction in compliance with CDC and DOH guidelines is allowable for all students.

Blended learning and distance learning may be used to reduce the number of students on campus to enable social distancing. 

All students are allowed back on campus.

HIDOE will continue to monitor the public health situation for any changes. 

During the transition between the Act with Care and Recovery phases, the Department anticipates the following activities are generally allowed with added HIDOE sub-levels.

Proposed HIDOE sublevels for Act with Care modifications to the State Roadmap:

Act with Care Plus

(Minor Disruption w/modifications)

​Distance learning will continue.

Face-to-face instruction is provided in compliance with CDC and DOH guidelines for vulnerable learners and early elementary grade levels (K-2; SPED PreK).

Based on an evaluation of operations, personnel, and facilities, face-to-face instruction may include additional groups of students.

Act with Care Pre-Recovery

(Minor Disruption w/transitions)

​Distance learning continues.

Face-to-face instruction continues with a careful and deliberate phase in of identified student groups in compliance with CDC and DOH guidelines for vulnerable learners, early elementary grade levels (e.g., K-2; SPED PreK, etc)., and students with specific needs.

All transitions are based on an evaluation of operations, personnel, and facilities. They are created and timed to minimize the changes and impact of setbacks due to COVID-19 on the school operations.

Periodic evaluations of adequate staffing and physical space needs will ensure the health and safety of students and staff, and implementation of social distancing guidelines.

DOH guidance for the reopening of schools was initially released in September 2020 and updated in October 2020. Complex area leaders will utilize the guidance and available related data in their decision making to mitigate risk in determining on-campus enrollment and school model transition phases.


Deep appreciation is extended to the tri-level HIDOE leadership team and countless staff members who contributed to the development of this plan. Mahalo to Bill Arakaki, Heidi Armstrong, Lindsay Ball, Alisa Bender, Brook Conner, Cynthia Covell, Robert Davis, Linell Dilwith, Kathleen Dimino, John Erickson, Chad Farias, Brian Hallett, Lanelle Hibbs, Matt Ho, Keith Hui, Esther Kanehailua, Yvonne Lau, Rodney Luke, Ann Mahi, Rochelle Mahoe, Deborah Nekomoto, Janette Snelling, Art Souza, Sean Tajima, Randall Tanaka, Sione Thompson and Paul Zina.

HIDOE's reopening framework was developed in consultation with the Hawai'i Board of Education (BOE) Reopening Schools Parent Feedback Committee, an ad hoc committee of 15 parents and grandparents. The committee, which was led by BOE Member Maggie Cox and supported by BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne, contributed diverse feedback and perspective that was critical to ensure that needs and concerns from the entire school community were heard and addressed. 

Mahalo to Andrea Alexander, Ryan Arakawa, Karen Arakawa, Katie Bojakowski, Ember Freitas, Mildred Hetrick, An’Gelle Kaeo, Maile Kaʻopua, Sharlene Murata, Bruce Nakamura, Neal Okamoto, Wyomie Pilor, Mark Segawa, Lyndee Sprenger, and Kelli Taylor.

The collaborative work of public education stakeholders, both internal and external, is so vital to ensuring student success, especially during these unprecedented times. Thank you for your commitment and dedication toward strengthening our Hawaiʻi public school system.

Mahalo to Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami for serving as master facilitator of this leadership collaborative. 

Return to Learn Errata Sheet

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