Kauna’oa Garcia is a Hawaiian immersion teacher at Princess Nahienaena Elementary. She’s originally from Lanai, in the background of this photo. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
At Hanakaoʻo Park in Lahaina, 15 students crowded around a table, plunging their hands into piles of black kukui, still sandy and wet from the ocean. The students identified the smoothest, shiniest nuts, then proudly showed off their finds to Kauna’oa Garcia.
Garcia, an elementary school teacher in the state’s Hawaiian language immersion program, plans to drill holes in the kukui and help students make their own lei.
Less than five miles away, Garcia’s fellow teachers welcomed students into their classrooms at Princess Nahienaena Elementary, which reopened for instruction last week.
But as concerns around the safety of Lahaina campuses linger, Garcia called out sick and instead offered informal lessons at the beach park for students in the Department of Education’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, or Ka Papahana Kaiapuni Hawaii.
“We were respectful to what’s happening, but we still need to move on,” Garcia said. “And I think this is part of them moving on, being together, but not at the campuses really close to the burn zone.”
The informal lessons, which Garcia taught in partnership with two other Kaiapuni teachers, were for Lahaina students in elementary and middle school. Of the 41 students the teachers served before fall break, 36 attended classes at the park last week.
In all, 53 Kaiapuni students returned to Hawaiian immersion classes in Lahaina last week. Excluding charter schools, there are 22 immersion programs in the state, but many, like those in Lahaina, are hosted on English-speaking campuses, according to the DOE’s website.
Over 160 Lahaina students were enrolled in the immersion program before the start of the year.
Even with high student turnout at the beach park, it wasn’t the start to the quarter that Garcia imagined. Following the destructive Aug. 8 wildfire, families in Lahaina’s Kaiapuni program hoped to build a temporary campus in Napili. The program would remain under the DOE but would have a campus solely dedicated to serving immersion students in all grades, making it the first K-12 Kaiapuni campus on Maui.
Instead, the families were encouraged to send their children back to the Lahaina campuses, Princess Nahienaena Elementary, Lahaina Intermediate and Lahainaluna High, which reopened last week despite concerns about potential toxins and pollution from the nearby burn zone.
Deputy DOE superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun said families can also enroll in the immersion program’s state distance learning program or attend other Maui schools offering Kaiapuni classes.
But Miriam Keo, a parent of two Kaiapuni students at Lahaina Intermediate, feels like she’s out of options. She worries about the environmental safety of Lahaina Intermediate’s campus, and she doesn’t feel comfortable sending her children across the island to attend a different Kaiapuni program. She added that she is reluctant to enroll her children in distance learning, citing their struggles with the online format during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I just don’t feel like really any of those actions are doable for us,” Keo said.
The DOE has reiterated that extensive testing of schools’ water, soil and air quality indicated that students can safely return to classes. The department also created a new emergency access route running from the Lahainaluna fire lane to the Lahaina Bypass in a bid to address evacuation concerns.
But, a day before Lahainaluna High’s reopening, the DOE and Department of Health announced that preliminary ash testing from the Kula fires showed high levels of toxins that may also be present in the Lahaina burn zone.
In a Board of Education meeting last week, Chun said enrollment at the three Lahaina schools has dropped by approximately 900 students, and a significant number of those still enrolled did not attend the first day of classes. That included many students enrolled in the Hawaiian immersion program.