‘Not one child should be unaccounted for:’ After Maui wildfires, school enrollment suffers

‘Not one child should be unaccounted for:’ After Maui wildfires, school enrollment suffers

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On a recent night on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Superintendent Keith Hayashi and several board members invited the community to a meeting that was supposed to be about plans to reopen several Maui public schools that were damaged during wildfires in the historical coastal town of Lahaina.

But the gathering devolved into an emotional and impassioned scene: Several Maui community members called on the school board to speed up the search for hundreds of students who haven’t enrolled since the fires killed at least 115 people and leveled more than 2,000 structures of acres of land on the island one month ago.

“It’s almost been a month – all hands on deck. There’s a lot of anxiety because students aren’t being identified as safe or deceased so what I don’t understand is, ‘Why? Why haven’t all the calls been made?’ said Susan Pcola-Davis during public testimony.

“You need to put yourself in the shoes of those who lost their children. You need to put yourself in the shoes of parents who were not home and had no chance to go save their children,” said Wallyn Christian. “At this point from what I calculated, approximately a little more than 900 ‘keiki’ (kids) are missing. That is one keiki too many. Not one child should be unaccounted for.”

Hayashi did not say the exact number of students who remain unaccounted for. But the board’s own calculations indicate about 966 kids are unenrolled.

Because King Kamehameha III Elementary “was damaged beyond repair” and three other schools – Lahainaluna High, Lahaina Intermediate and Nahienaena Elementary – are undergoing “environmental assessments for air, water and soil quality, as well as ensuring stable power and sufficient broadband connectivity,” state officials told families to enroll in a new school or distance learning, according to a post on the department’s website from Aug. 29.

Of the 3,000 students enrolled in the four schools at the start of the new school year, they said 782 have re-enrolled in other public schools, 907 have enrolled in a distance learning program and nearly 345 have enrolled in charter schools, private schools or have withdrawn, according to a presentation given Hayashi.

“We are actively reaching out to contact families for the remainder of students who have not yet enrolled in an option, knowing that some may have moved out of state or have paused their child’s education for the time being,” he said.

On Sept. 8, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green in a video on X said the number of people who remain unaccounted had dropped to 66, and there are 41 active investigations into those people unaccounted for “after people filed missing persons reports.”

‘Not an easy thing to do’: Authorities name 388 people still missing after Maui wildfires

The search continues

In response to the criticism, officials said staff are trying to reach families of students who haven’t enrolled in another school, including leaving voicemails. Hayashi said there are about 48 families they “have not been able to make contact with.” Heidi Armstrong, the deputy superintendent of the Hawaii Board of Education, said as of Sept. 6, there are some families they haven’t called yet.

Kids have already missed a large portion of the school year. The school semester started on Aug. 7, according to the Hawaii State Department of Education. At the meeting, officials said they hope to reopen the three damaged Lahaina schools following a “fall break” that ends on Oct. 13.

Questions about kids’ whereabouts are catching national attention

Several social media videos have surfaced and recirculated detailing theories that unenrolled kids are deceased or have been kidnapped since the Department of Education released the information.

In response, community members are demanding answers from trustees at the meeting not only to find the kids, but to combat falsities.

“See how public’s minds can just start filling in the blanks without knowing facts because facts aren’t available?” said Pcola-Davis.

Teachers, students and families in Maui are still reeling from the devastation the wildfires brought to their schools, they said at the meeting, adding that clearer answers about the kids who are missing could help provide some relief.

“It’s hard to really quantify the gravity of the experience and the emergency of what happened in Lahaina,” said Richard Karuso, the principal of Lahaina High School, at the meeting. “And the emotional toll on our staff and our students is going to be long term.”

‘Help is pouring in’: How to assist victims in the Maui wildfires in Hawaii

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @kaylajjimenez.

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