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Parents in Maui are grappling with where to send their kids as the school year begins

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Schools in West Maui were just beginning to open for the new academic year when the fires hit on August 8, nearly two weeks ago. Since then, the whole school year has been thrown into uncertainty for West Maui parents as they grapple with making new plans, many in the aftermath of losing their homes. NPR's Vanessa Romo joins us now from Maui. Thanks for joining us.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: We've seen so much destruction in the photos of West Maui. Were the schools also damaged?

ROMO: Definitely. The fire in Lahaina damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures, and schools were a part of that devastation. One elementary school was totally ravaged by the fire, and other schools that are still standing suffered wind damage, according to the Department of Education. And Hawaii's public school superintendent issued a statement earlier this week explaining that crews at those campuses would be cleaning up debris and testing the air and water quality. And as of Thursday, officials still had not set a reopening date for those schools. Meanwhile, Maui County says that over 3,000 students have been displaced.

RASCOE: So what are education officials doing to get the kids who've been displaced back into the classroom?

ROMO: They are still working to sort that out. Since the fire, the Department of Education has been encouraging parents who feel comfortable to enroll their kids in other schools. So far, about 400 students have signed up to do just that. But the challenge there is that many parents want to keep their kids physically near. And Maui isn't tiny. It's almost 50 miles long, and West Maui is separated from the rest of the island by a big mountain range that you have to drive around. I spoke with one parent, Rochel Kitajima. She has four school-age children from first grade to 11th. They didn't lose their home, but they would have to travel across the island to go to school.

ROCHEL KITAJIMA: It's a 45-minute drive, 26 miles each way. And I am a ER nurse, so I start work at 7 p.m. I get off at 7:30. It's just not feasible for my family.

RASCOE: That sounds incredibly difficult. Is there transportation set up for kids who are expected to travel to these new schools?

ROMO: That is something that Kitajima mentioned, as well. At the moment, she says there's no bus system to shuttle kids to and from those campuses. The other thing is that a lot of people here have no idea where they're going to end up long-term, so they don't feel it makes sense for them or their kids to enroll in a new school only to move again in the near future.

RASCOE: So are there alternatives?

ROMO: Yes. Parents have the option of enrolling their children in the district's distance learning program. So far, the Department of Education says that more than 200 students have signed up for that, but that has its own challenges. I met Leimomi Kaita at a distribution hub in West Maui. She was picking up school supplies for her three school-age children when we met. I asked if she'd be open to distance learning.

LEIMOMI KAITA: We did that during COVID. It was online, but we don't have the...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Computers.

KAITA: ...The computers. We lost all of that in the fire. So we're just doing whatever we find here in the hubs.

RASCOE: I mean, school provides not just education for the kids, but it can provide a much needed break and relief for parents. So how are they coping without it?

ROMO: Well, there are a number of organizations that have set up day camps for kids. Some of them have accredited therapists and mental health professionals who are providing free counseling to kids. But they're all aimed at providing a place for kids to play games and make art and just be together, to socialize with other kids. They're also designed to give parents or caregivers some alone time. I spoke with a woman named Jackie Englert. She was actually picking up her friend's four boys from one of these day camps.

JACKIE ENGLERT: She just needed space. Everything feels really chaotic right now. I don't even - I'm just doing what I can - helping. She was overwhelmed, emotional. There's no space to be emotional when you have four boys in your face.

ROMO: And Englert said that their mom, who's lost everything, just needed some time to process and grieve.

RASCOE: NPR's Vanessa Romo. Thank you so much, Vanessa.

ROMO: Thank you. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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