By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) – Before wildfire ravaged the Hawaiian community of Lahaina last week, high school teacher Mike Landes was always the guy arguing that academics come first – before worries about the social and emotional development of the students.
But as parents, teachers and students begin trickling back to school after wildfires ravaged the community in the western part of Hawaii’s island of Maui, mental health, he now insists, must take priority.
The wind-whipped firestorm that raged through Lahaina in west Maui killed at least 111 people in a death toll that is still mounting. It destroyed King Kamehameha III Elementary School, damaged three other campuses and damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 homes and buildings.
Getting kids back in school poses numerous challenges: hundreds have already enrolled in schools in areas outside the burn zone. Some will be too traumatized to come when their schools in Lahaina reopen. Some parents will opt to move rather than rebuild.
Wherever they attend, school can be a step toward normalcy for survivors in a community grappling with how to pick up lives while carrying a load of mourning.
The fire swept through Lahaina on the very day that many students, including freshmen at Lahainaluna High School where Landes works and children at the elementary campus where his wife teaches were scheduled to return from summer vacation. But classes were canceled due to the high winds that propelled the blaze.
Landes’s own two children were scheduled to be in school in Lahaina that day.
“Social and emotional well-being, care for people who are traumatized – I think it would be fair to say that’s what would need to come first,” said Landes, who heads the Maui chapter of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
To help students, parents and staff, the Hawaii State Department of Education is offering in-person and telehealth counseling services, according to the department’s website.
“The teachers, their main goal is to make these kids feel as normal as possible and just get them back to a normal school life,” said Courtney Walter, a parent of three elementary age students who went back to school last week in Kihei on the south side of the island where Landes also lives with his family.
SCHOOLS REOPEN OUTSIDE BURN ZONE
The state has been encouraging families from Lahaina to enroll their children at schools outside of the burn zone where they may be staying temporarily. Children whose families already lived outside Lahaina but attend schools there on special permits should also enroll elsewhere, the Hawaii State Department of Education said on its website.
So far, however, only about 400 students from the burn area have enrolled in other public schools, while about 200 signed up for distance learning, according to the state. The four schools in Lahaina served more than 3,000 students.
It is not yet clear how many children perished in the fire, or how many parents are waiting to decide where to send them to school. State education officials did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
Campuses in areas physically unaffected by the blaze reopened to students on Wednesday, and teachers, staff and pupils at a school outside of Lahaina in Maui’s Upcountry where a different fire burned are scheduled to return next week, the department said.
Many hung signs welcoming students from Lahaina. At Maui High School, traditionally a rival of Lahainaluna, students and teachers wore Lahainaluna’s red and white colors, rather than their own school’s blue and white, Landes said.
As of the state’s most recent update on Thursday night, officials had still not decided how to handle enrollment for children who had attended King Kamehameha III, the school that burned down. One possibility is to allow them to attend the area’s other elementary school, Princess Nahi’ena’ena Elementary, once it is declared safe. Another possibility is to open a temporary satellite campus in West Maui.
The state has not yet set a date for reopening the three Lahaina schools that are still standing, saying only that students and staff will not be asked to come back until it is safe.
Landes is still hoping to send his children back to school in Lahaina, and he and his wife still plan to work there.
But coming back will bring a powerful mix of feelings, he said. The family will have to drive through the burn zone to get to school, and his children, 11 and 15, will see the devastation first hand.
“They’ve seen the pictures,” he said. “They’ve heard from their friends about some really, really horrible things. It’s going to be the most difficult thing they will have ever witnessed in their lives.”
“But we can’t wait to do it and they can’t wait to do it. Our community and our schools mean that much.”
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Liliana Salgado in Kihei, Hawaii; Editing by Donna Bryson and Sonali Paul)
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