Hundreds of families have sought alternative learning opportunities on Maui and beyond.

Although Lahaina schools reopened this week, many students have not returned.

Roughly 3,000 students were enrolled at the four schools at the start of the academic year. That number has since dropped closer to 2,100 students, Deputy Superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun said at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting. A significant number of the students who are enrolled also did not show up for the first day of classes.

The Lahainaluna High, Lahaina Intermediate and Princess Nahienaena campuses reopened this week after being closed since the Aug. 8 fires. King Kamehameha III Elementary, which was destroyed in the wildfires, will share facilities with Princess Nahienaena until a temporary campus reopens in 2024.

Many of the remaining students who are no longer enrolled in the Lahaina schools are now attending other DOE schools on Maui. Approximately 240 students are attending other Hawaii schools, and 60 have moved off-island, according to the DOE’s presentation.

Enrollment at Lahaina schools has declined significantly from where it was before the Aug. 8 fires, according to the Department of Education.

The schools’ reopening came soon after a DOE and Department of Health announcement that preliminary ash samples in Kula showed high levels of arsenic, lead and cobalt. DOH Director Kenneth Fink said ash from Lahaina may include similar toxins, raising some concerns among some parents about the safety and health of their children, especially once demolition in the burn zone begins.

During Thursday’s meeting, DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi reiterated that extensive testing of air, water and soil quality indicated that the campuses are safe for students’ to return. With a few exceptions, monitors at the schools have regularly reported good air quality, Chun said.

Even among families enrolled in the Lahaina schools, not all students came to campus for the first day of school. While Lahainaluna High saw 88% of its enrolled students arrive on campus Monday, only 55% of students enrolled at King Kamehameha III Elementary attended classes on the first day of school.

A bus of elementary school students celebrate their return to studying in Lahaina Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Princess Nahienaena Elementary School opened their campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary School to place temporary classrooms. The schools have been closed since the Aug. 8 fire and studying at other schools in Maui. King Kamehameha III Elementary School was destroyed in the blaze. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Elementary school students celebrated their return to studying in Lahaina on Oct. 18, 2023. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In a survey families completed earlier this month about their future schooling plans, some King Kamehameha III Elementary parents said they were choosing to homeschool their children or send them to a private or charter school until a temporary campus opens in 2024, Oyadomari-Chun said.

She added that families are continuing to pursue distance learning or send their children to schools in Central and South Maui as their housing and employment situations change.

“We do see daily that students are enrolling in distance learning and other schools,” Oyadomari-Chun said.

Kahele Dukelow, a BOE member representing Maui, questioned whether the department will offer options for students who do not feel safe returning to campus but would like to receive more in-person support. Dukelow believes a significant number of students may not return to campus until cleanup efforts in Lahaina are completed.

“What might we begin to envision as a halfway point between distance learning and going back?” Dukelow asked.

Leading up to fall break, the state’s distance learning hub at Citizen Church in West Maui served more than 350 students. The hub, which provided in-person support for students enrolled in online classes, has since closed.

Chun emphasized the department will continue to follow up with families to better understand why enrolled students are not attending classes in Lahaina.

“The focus in next period is on students who we’re expecting to be at Lahaina but are not,” Chun said.

Moving forward, schools will continue to provide social and emotional support for children returning to campuses, Chun said. The University of Hawaii also announced Thursday that Lahainaluna High students can receive full scholarships covering their costs of tuition for two to four years, based on the campuses they attend and degrees they are pursuing, Chun added.

Previously, the university had extended its offer for one academic year to the Lahainaluna senior class.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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