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Some Lahaina parents push to reopen school local schools

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many kids on Maui missed out on an important ritual this year - going back to school. That's another consequence of the wildfire that destroyed or damaged homes and buildings, including a cluster of schools. More than 1,500 students - that is more than half the kids in the Lahaina district - they have already enrolled elsewhere. But some parents are fighting to keep their kids together, as NPR's Pien Huang reports.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: It's a really hot morning a few weeks after the fire in Lahaina. About 500 parents, teachers and students are gathered under an outdoor tent, spilling onto the lawn. Keith Hayashi, superintendent for Hawaii Public Schools, faces a tough crowd.

KEITH HAYASHI: The purpose of today's community meeting is to gather input from you, to hear your concerns.

HUANG: He's here at a local church to share plans for the school year. He hears a lot of concerns and also anger from parents like Anela Gordon. Her son is a senior at Lahainaluna High School. He's also a football player.

ANELA GORDON: My senior athlete got robbed his freshman year because of COVID. He got robbed half his sophomore year because of COVID protocols. Now getting robbed his senior year - how fair is that?

HUANG: The high school, the intermediate school and Princess Nahiʻenaʻena Elementary School are clustered at the top of a hill. They're looking over what used to be Lahaina town. It's now 2,000 acres of ash and debris. The three schools are standing, but they remain closed. The Department of Education says it will take at least two months to test the safety of the air, soil and water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND CHIMES TINKLING)

HUANG: The wind blows soot over the surrounding neighborhood. That's where we meet Samantha Kawaakoa on her front porch. She's a five-minute walk from the elementary school her son would usually attend.

KAIKANE: My name is Kaikane, and I'm from here, and I am 8.

SAMANTHA KAWAAKOA: (Laughter) Anybody at the school knows Kaikane. There's only, like, one Kaikane. He's so outgoing.

KAIKANE: No, two of them.

KAWAAKOA: I know there's two Kaikanes, but when you say Kaikane, you're the one that pops to everybody's head. They're like, Kaikane. You know, he's like...

KAIKANE: Yeah.

KAWAAKOA: He's loved by everyone.

HUANG: But now he's spending his days at home. On this day, there are volunteers testing their water and fixing the air conditioner. The house they live in didn't burn. But Kawaakoa says it doesn't mean it's safe.

KAWAAKOA: Every time that we cook rice, wash dishes or brush our teeth is with bottled water. And then when we come outside, we wear our mask.

HUANG: There are other school options for students - distance learning or going to other communities. For parents like Kawaakoa, that's a nonstarter.

KAWAAKOA: That's far from home, you know? It's not fair to him or to them.

HUANG: These other schools are more than 20 miles away, past a narrow, winding stretch of highway called the Pali, the cliffs, prone to falling rocks. Parents worry that if there's an accident on the road, they won't be able to reach their kids. And in Kawaakoa's case, her son Kaikane has ADHD.

KAWAAKOA: He needs one-on-one assistance. And I'm not going to put him in a brand-new school with people that don't know him.

HUANG: The superintendent says they'll reopen the schools in Lahaina after the mid-October break. That's more than a month from now. Until then, Kawaakoa is taking care of Kaikane full time. The inn where Kawaakoa worked at the front desk burned down in the fire. Her job, which she loved, is gone.

KAWAAKOA: For me, I'm a single mother. I have two kids. I have a car. I have a phone bill, you know? I have rent to pay. But I was making it with my job.

HUANG: Now without school, she doesn't have childcare. Back at the community meeting, parents' anger keeps rising. It's been nearly two hours. There's still a steady line of people waiting to speak.

MIKEY BURKE: Hi, everyone. Your Department of Education has failed us so miserably by the lack of communication.

(APPLAUSE)

HUANG: Mikey Burke comes to the microphone. She has four sons who are Kaiapuni students. They're enrolled in a Hawaii language immersion program. She gets emotional pleading with school officials.

BURKE: Social and emotional well-being is the only concern right now.

(APPLAUSE)

HUANG: She says the expectations for school in a disaster zone should be different.

BURKE: I don't need them to know math and science, maybe a little P.E. Take them down to the beach. Teach them about their place. That's all we need right now. I mean, we are people of Lahaina here.

(APPLAUSE)

BURKE: We know how to rough it out here.

HUANG: The kids here have grown up together. But if they don't stay together now, Mikey Burke fears they'll never be reunited, or if they are someday down the road, they'll be strangers. Pien Huang, NPR News, Maui.

KELLY: And NPR's Marisa Peñaloza produced our story today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.