David Lassner

UH President David Lassner addresses the media on COVID 19, moving classes online and event cancelations during a press conference at Bachman Hall on March 12, 2020. 

In precautionary measures with student safety in mind, University of Hawai’i leadership shifted all classes online and canceled commencement. 

UH President David Lassner emphasized that the root of their decisions are founded in concern for public health. 

“This is life and death,” Lassner said at a Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 meeting on Tuesday at the Hawai’i State Capitol. “It is by far the most serious.”

The Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 convened on Tuesday to assess and advise the Senate regarding how the state will continue to deal with the pandemic. 

To limit transmission and exposure of the virus, the meeting was not open to the public but live-streamed. 

This committee met in order to confirm the development of state departmental plans, to review and assess current departmental plans, and whether they are properly implemented in a timely manner. 

The senators of the special committee include Senators Donovan M. Dela Cruz, Jarrett Keohokalole, Michelle Kidani, Donna Kim, Sharon Moriwaki and Kurt Fevella.

The senators met with Lassner, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto of the Department of Education and CEO of Hawai’i Tourism Chris Tatum.

Lassner, along with Vice President for Administration Jan Gouveia, spoke at the meeting on COVID-19 first. 

“In light of Mayor Caldwell’s and Gov. Ige’s announcements on Sunday and Monday respectively, we have made the decision to discontinue any face-to-face straggling classes that we were not able to deliver online,” Gouveia said. 

Gouveia is also the lead executive for emergency management in addition to her role as the UH vice president for administration.

“What the University of Hawai’i has been doing is obviously closely monitoring the status of the pandemic statewide by participating in the daily high email calls,” Gouveia said during the COVID-19 meeting this afternoon. 

The last few weeks have been examined on a day-by-day basis, as the pandemic continues to spread. 

“We were anticipating ultimately that we would get to a point where we would be in a state of shutdown. So we began planning pretty early on for online or distance learning,” Gouveia said.

Lassner said the UH system was the first public higher education institution in the state to shut down. Soon after the announcement was made two weeks ago, other institutions followed suit. 

The leadership team of UH has been making sure that everyone is current on the status of the pandemic both locally and nationally. 

“As a working objective, what we have tried to stay consistent to from the beginning, has been to ensure the continuation of the spring semester,” said Gouveia. “We want to be able to complete it and provide the credits as originally planned.” 

As universities across the country shut down, many were concerned with specific classes being held online including laboratories, career and technical education courses and studios. 

Originally those classes were allowed to continue in person as long as social distancing was in practice. Recently that decision has been reversed as it was determined to be too high-risk. 

On March 21, Gov. David Ige mandated a 14-day quarantine for the state. Residents returning home are required to quarantine in their homes for the two week period while visitors must stay in their hotel or rented lodging. 

The next day, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced that the city and county of Honolulu is on strict stay-at-home and work-at-home orders. Gov. Ige announced similar stay-at-home and work-at-home orders as well. Only essential operations were allowed to stay open, including some facilities at UH. 

As of Tuesday, technical details regarding classes that are unable to be taught online are still unresolved. The leadership team of UH is still deciding how to carry out this decision.

UH is rapidly decreasing who can be on campus. On March 20, the university closed all campuses to the public except for faculty and students. 

“The intent is to continue providing business but at a descaled level because a lot of our students will be at home,” Gouveia added. 

There are few activities that are allowed to continue. Construction around campus, including construction of the new Life Sciences building, will continue as scheduled. 

Student services around campus are either closed or practicing social isolation. Cafeterias are providing food by take-out only, libraries are sectioned off and closed to non-employees and public seating around campus has been barricaded to limit close contact. 

“The balancing act for us has been how to complete the spring semester for our students while keeping everybody safe,” Lassner added. 

Residential halls will continue to stay open for those students who cannot go home at this time. Student Housing Services has implemented isolation rooms for students that have returned to the state recently in order to slow the spread. 

“I would rather them be in our resident halls than return home to Seattle, New York or the Bay Area. They’re in a safer place right now,” Lassner said. 

The places Lassner listed have been hot spots for COVID-19.

The Washington State Department of Health reported that the statewide coronavirus death toll climbed to 123 and there are now more than 2,400 confirmed cases as of March 24. 

The state of New York currently has over 25,000 total reported cases and over two hundred deaths. 

California now has over 2,600 confirmed cases in the state; half of which are located in the Bay Area. There are more than 50 deaths from the virus in the state thus far. 

Many states and cities that are high risk such as these have been locked down across the country. San Francisco being one city that has been in shelter-in-place orders since March 17. 

As of Tuesday, Hawai‘i currently has 90 cases including one death.

Spring Commencement was cancelled on March 19. Currently the university is discussing plans for a virtual commencement or in-person ceremony at the end of the summer for those who were going to walk in May. 

The meeting concluded with Kishimoto and Tatum speaking on how their respective departments are handling the pandemic. 

The special senate committee is currently digesting the information given to them by the three speakers and will relay any additional decisions regarding next steps for the state throughout the rest of the week.