The historic Maui town, which already suffered from a child care shortage, lost 255 licensed seats in the August wildfires.

Megan Cochran’s daughter attended preschool for the first time just days before the Lahaina wildfire. Even in her short time at Holy Innocents Preschool in Lahaina, Cochran saw her daughter thrive.

But after the Aug. 8 fire destroyed much of the seaside town, including Holy Innocents, Cochran struggled to find a new preschool on an island that already faced a child care shortage before the disaster.

“To have (preschool) taken away from her, it really affected her,” Cochran said, adding that she enrolled her daughter in Maui Adventist Pre-Elementary School in Kahului last month.

Children of the Rainbow was one of six child care providers that closed following the Aug. 8 wildfires.
Children of the Rainbow was one of six child care providers that closed following the Aug. 8 wildfires. (Courtesy: Noelle Kamaunu)

Lahaina, which had approximately 1,700 children ages 5 and under before the wildfires, lost 255 licensed child care seats in August. At least six Lahaina centers serving young children remain closed nearly three months after the deadly blaze, according to a tracking map from Child Care Aware of America and PATCH Hawaii, a child care resource and referral agency.

A ‘Deep Need’ For Child Care

The two Lahaina preschools that are open — The Preschool at Kapalua and Maui Preparatory Academy’s preschool program — are operating at full capacity, leaving many families without options as they return to work and try to rebuild after the fires. 

Megan Cochran’s daughter attended Holy Innocents Preschool before the school was lost in the Aug. 8 fires.
Megan Cochran’s daughter attended Holy Innocents Preschool before the school was lost in the Aug. 8 fires. (Courtesy: Megan Cochran)

“We can’t get back to work, we can’t rebuild our homes or anything if we have little toddlers around who need so much attention,” Cochran said. 

Meanwhile, many providers who lost their centers in the fire face uncertainty about when and how they can start offering child care again. 

The loss of facilities has exacerbated a longstanding child care shortage.

Liz Turcik, director of admissions and a history teacher at Maui Preparatory Academy, said she has received calls from pregnant mothers asking to reserve waitlist spots for their unborn children.

Since August, she added, she’s received more desperate calls from parents asking if they can enroll their toddlers in the academy’s preschool.

“The fire has not changed that deep need for preschool programs,” Turcik said. 

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who has made increasing preschool capacity in the state a signature issue, said the state has identified West Maui as a community with high child care needs.

She said that, even before the fires, Lahaina had no state-run preschool classrooms that were free of charge for families, although there was a federally funded Head Start program.

Now, with heightened demand for child care in Lahaina, the state is considering how quickly it could open public preschool facilities on Princess Nahienaena Elementary’s campus, Luke said, referring to one of the recently reopened Lahaina schools.

In January, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke announced that the Ready Keiki initiative would create more preschool classrooms across the state. Even before the fires, West Maui was a target spot for new preschool facilities under the initiative. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

As some families leave Lahaina or remain out of work, child care remains essential for helping students heal and socialize after the fires, said Kaina Bonacorsi, the early childhood resource coordinator for Maui County.

Unclear Timelines For Rebuilding

Child care centers also provided families with a safe place to leave their children in the days after the worst U.S. wildfire in modern history as parents visited resource hubs and sought aid from state agencies, Bonacorsi added. 

Recognizing this need, Kama’aina Kids, a nonprofit providing educational programs across the state, offered free child care in Kahului until mid-September. Dana Vela, the program’s president and CEO, said her organization was able to find permanent placements for several families in child care centers elsewhere on Maui.

“It comes down to the stability of the children,” Vela said. 

But uncertainty remains around finding long-term child care solutions for Lahaina. 

Children of the Rainbow Preschool was a child care fixture in the Lahaina community from the 1970s, when it first operated under the name Lahaina Preschool. The preschool served 36 students before the fires and had a waitlist of three years, said director Noelle Kamaunu.

Kamaunu hasn’t been able to visit her school since the fires. From what she can see from Google Maps and drone footage of the burn zone, she believes the preschool’s main building was completely destroyed.

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 students returned to Princess Nahienaena last month, but the Head Start program operating on the campus has yet to reopen. Maui Economic Opportunity hopes the Head Start program will reopen by January. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023). (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Kamaunu said she is unsure if she should reopen in a temporary location or wait until she can completely rebuild the school at its original location. She added that she has no idea when she could start the school’s construction in Lahaina.

“I’m just looking at all the options and really just trying to figure out what would be the right thing to do at this time,” Kamaunu said. 

In the meantime, Kamaunu said, she’s applied for a public assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help cover the cost of her school’s losses, which she estimates to be at least $1 million.

“We can’t get back to work, we can’t rebuild our homes or anything if we have little toddlers around who need so much attention.” 

Megan Cochran

Adam Weintraub, communication director for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said nonprofit daycares and preschools can apply for public assistance grants if they have also applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration. Between SBA loans and public assistance grants, child care providers may qualify for aid covering the full value of their losses in the fire, Weintraub said. 

Before the fire, Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina enrolled 48 students in its early learning center and junior kindergarten program. Although the school’s campus was lost to the fires, kindergarten to eighth grade students have resumed classes at the Sacred Hearts Mission Church in Kapalua. 

But because child care centers have different facility requirements than primary schools, Sacred Hearts’ preschool has yet to reopen, said early learning center and junior kindergarten director Kawailani Silva. Sacred Hearts is looking for other spaces for a temporary preschool, but the process has been slow, Silva said.

She added that families are frustrated with the lack of available child care options, especially when many are nervous to send their children to programs on the other side of the island.

“We need these programs,” Silva said. 

Six child care centers in Lahaina, marked on the map with black dots, have closed since the Aug. 8 fires.
Six child care centers in Lahaina, marked on the map with black dots, have closed since the Aug. 8 fire. (Screenshot/Hawaiʻi Child Care Supply Map)

High Demand, Limited Options

Lahaina’s Head Start, a federal initiative which provides free preschool and family services to eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, operated on Princess Nahienaena’s campus before the fires, said Debbi Amaral, director of early childhood services at Maui Economic Opportunity.

While Princess Nahieanena reopened to elementary students last month, Head Start has yet to welcome back students. The program’s large shade structure was badly damaged from heavy winds during the fire and has yet to be replaced, Amaral said. She hopes Lahaina’s Head Start will reopen to students in January, if not earlier. 

At Maui Prep, the preschool program had enrolled a maximum of 32 students at the start of the year, and its waitlist has more than doubled from 20 to 45 students, Turcik said. She added that the annual tuition for the preschool is $8,856, although the school is offering financial aid to preschool families this year.

Head of School Miguel Solis said Maui Prep hopes to expand its preschool capacity by 13 students next year in response to the high number of families without child care after the fires. 

“There really aren’t a lot of options for preschoolers to attend school, and it was already difficult to begin with,” Solis said. 

But, he added, he’s unsure how difficult it will be to add another preschool teacher amid the state’s ongoing shortage of child care providers. 

Vela echoed Solis’ concerns, adding that, even if more spaces become available to host child care programs, she’s unsure how many Lahaina providers will be able to immediately return to work. 

More assistance was offered in late October when the Department of Health opened its Child Care Subsidy Program for families impacted by the Lahaina fire and waived past eligibility requirements such as families’ income cap.

As of Oct. 31, DHS had received 110 applications for the program, Scott Morishige, benefits, employment and support services division administrator at DHS, said in an emailed statement. The program helps to cover the costs of child care, and payments for eligible families will run for 12 months, Morishige added. 

Moving forward, Kamaunu said the state must recognize child care as a means of revitalizing the community after the fires. In the meantime, she added, she’ll continue to consider her reopening options and wait for more information about rebuilding in Lahaina.

“It has to get better,” Kamaunu said. “That’s all I know.”

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

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

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