Families face waiting game in Lahaina back-to-school efforts after Maui wildfires

Roughly 3,000 students have been displaced in the fires.

August 31, 2023, 1:50 PM

The children living in Lahaina are in limbo following the deadly wildfires that flattened and destroyed the historic Maui town.

Myles Verrastro, 6, was just about to start first grade at King Kamehameha III Elementary School when the wildfires devastated both his home and his school. His school's campus has been declared damaged beyond repair.

Myles told ABC News he hopes to one day become an astronaut to "go to space and see all the planets." For now, he and his family are left scrambling for answers on their uncertain future in Lahaina.

“I was going to Kamehameha ... but it burnt down, so ...” he said, turning to his mother. His mom, Sarah Verrastro, added, “So, we are going to figure it out."

Myles repeated: “We’re going to figure it out."

Students like Myles say they just want to go back to school, back to their homes, and back to their normal lives.

Myles Verrasto, 6, lost his home and school in the Maui wildfires.
ABC News

"Our children are shocked, like we are," Verrastro said.

"It’s really important our keiki feel safe," she added, using the Hawaiian word for children. "Keiki is our future."

Roughly 3,000 students from the four Lahaina public schools have been displaced in the fires.

Officials said they expect to start up schools right after the fall break from Oct. 9 to Oct. 13 if the air quality, water quality, soil quality, and electrical power supply proves that the three available campuses that still stand are safe for the return of students and staff. Students from the unusable King Kamehameha III Elementary School will share a campus with the other local elementary school.

Maui Preparatory Academy, a private school, is the only functioning school in West Maui and has opened up more than 100 spots for students who were impacted by the fires.

“We know the reopening of our schools plays a vital role,” said a school official at a Wednesday community hearing. “It helps provide a sense of normalcy. It gets our students back into their routine and it's also where we can find additional support for our students during this challenging time.”

State superintendent of the Hawaii Department of Education Keith Hayashi said that once schools are deemed safe, "we will be contracting a professional company to do the cleaning inside and outside of those three campuses."

Hundreds of parents and children attended a community hearing about the back-to-school plan for Lahaina students.
ABC News

He continued, later asking parents for input: "Please know that we are in a very fluid environment and things change sometimes daily."

More than 6,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Lahaina, according to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, meaning children have been scattered across Maui into temporary housing that has shaken up their back-to-school plans.

More than 1,200 students are currently registered for distance learning or have transferred to other schools across the island, school officials said.

Residents have a long road ahead before they can rebuild, complicating the return-to-school plans.

Hayashi said that schools will be providing transportation to students who have to go to schools in Central or South Maui and are able to choose schools closer to their temporary housing.

The destroyed King Kamehameha III Elementary School, where classes were supposed to begin on Aug. 9, in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 10, 2023.
Philip Cheung/The New York Times via Redux

Schools also will be working on both short-term and long-term mental health resources for students and faculty.

"As much as you try to shelter them … I mean, they're here. they're seeing it, they're feeling it," said another parent, Jennifer Gibbons.

Hundreds of parents and children showed up to the community meeting Wednesday, with some exasperated about the journey ahead.

Parents were quick to push back at the planning that was already underway: “How many people were involved in what you already announced in the news yesterday?” demanded one emotional mother, hundreds clapping in support.

"Some of these parents don’t have a voice in decision making,” she said.

The superintendent argued that "the purpose of today is to gather input, get a path toward.”

Another parent digressed from the topic of children's education, expressing frustration that the schools that didn't burn would do extensive soil samples when their own destroyed homes aren't getting help.

Someone else yelled, "Even if your house burned you don't get help!"

The land search for victims has been completed, and the Environmental Protection Agency said it will begin what is expected to be a months-long journey toward removing hazardous materials from the burn area.

This removal effort, alongside building safety assessments, needs to take place before businesses and residents can come back to their property. EPA officials confirmed this will happen in sections so locals don’t have to wait for the entire 5-mile region to be cleaned before returning.

For parents, the priority remains their children.

"They are resilient, and they are kind and they will be OK, but they have been through trauma. And I know that even though they had that smile on their face when they go to bed at night, it's scary," Gibbons said.

ABC News' Victor Ordonez and Stephanie Wash contributed to this report.

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