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Hawaii News

Maui teachers ask for more help following August wildfires

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                                At top, Lahainaluna science teachers Jackie Ellis, left, and Arica Lynn embraced Thursday at the Board of Education’s Queen Lili‘uokalani building.
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At top, Lahainaluna science teachers Jackie Ellis, left, and Arica Lynn embraced Thursday at the Board of Education’s Queen Lili‘uokalani building.

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Above, Maui educators enter the department’s building in downtown Honolulu.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Above, Maui educators enter the department’s building in downtown Honolulu.

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Lahainaluna teacher Victoria Zupancic, third from left, embraces HSTA staff member Jill Reinecke on Thursday as other Maui educators gathered at the Board of Education’s Queen Lili‘uokalani building in Honolulu.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Lahainaluna teacher Victoria Zupancic, third from left, embraces HSTA staff member Jill Reinecke on Thursday as other Maui educators gathered at the Board of Education’s Queen Lili‘uokalani building in Honolulu.

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                At top, Lahainaluna science teachers Jackie Ellis, left, and Arica Lynn embraced Thursday at the Board of Education’s Queen Lili‘uokalani building.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Above, Maui educators enter the department’s building in downtown Honolulu.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Lahainaluna teacher Victoria Zupancic, third from left, embraces HSTA staff member Jill Reinecke on Thursday as other Maui educators gathered at the Board of Education’s Queen Lili‘uokalani building in Honolulu.

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Maui educators testify for more support

Emotions ran high Thursday at the Board of Education’s general business meeting, where board members spent 90 minutes discussing updates on rebuilding Maui schools, including over an hour of testimony from Lahaina-area educators asking for more support following the August wildfires.

Nearly 20 teachers traveled to Oahu from Maui to attend Thursday’s meeting, where they asked the BOE to reconsider an increase in shortage differentials, the creation of a fire relief leave bank and amplified mental health support for students and staff.

“A lot of us lost everything, and I think the thing that I struggle the most with is knowing that our students, children, adolescents, have had to see an experience that as adults we’re experiencing, and the adults have to get it right,” said Luxmi Quall, an English-language teacher at Lahaina Intermediate School. “The adults have to do the right thing to be the voice of reason and care for these students, and there are many adults in the equation that are not doing the proper support or the right things right now. We need to make sure that we step up and do everything we can to advocate.”

Mike Landes, president of the Maui chapter of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, began the testimony period by “imploring” the BOE members to “help (state Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi) to be pono and live up to his department’s own outcomes and directly take action on these simple requests.”

At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, there were 214 teachers serving the four schools directly affected by the wildfires in Lahaina — Princess Nahienaena Elementary School, King Kamehameha III Elementary School, Lahaina Intermediate School and Lahainaluna High School — according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Around a dozen educators based in Lahaina temporarily transferred to other schools this year for various reasons, including health and housing. A few took leave for the fall or the whole year.

Over 100 educators and retirees lost their homes due to the August wildfires. Of the 214 teachers working in Lahaina, 149 lived in the area, HSTA said.

Testifiers said that the need for mental health care and support is necessary for both students and staff.

In his superintendent’s report on the Maui wildfire impacts, Hayashi said some of the written testimony submitted for the meeting “mentioned issues or concerns with the mental health supports in place.” He then requested that people send Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong lists of students who were turned away from support services, the names of schools that need additional support and the names of agencies that deny staff mental health requests.

But testifiers said submitting a list was unnecessary and that there was a need for additional counselors on the ground in Lahaina.

“We need additional human counselors at every school where there are fire-affected students. You don’t need a list of names; that’s just a cop-out,” Landes said. “Send the help.”

Additionally, Maui educators advocated for the creation of a temporary fire relief leave bank, where employees can donate some of their sick-leave days for use by those affected by the fires.

Following the wildfires, HSTA members say they have exhausted their sick and personal leave to tend to fire-related activities and must take leave without pay to address their continued needs. Teachers are awarded six personal leave days each year, and few qualify for vacation leave days, HSTA said.

In a letter to the DOE, HSTA asked for the creation of the leave bank, to which they said the DOE responded that they were “not willing to consider these requests at this time.”

As of Thursday over 600 teachers statewide have pledged to donate leave days if the bank is created.

“I’m ashamed of how many days I had to miss this year to take care of my daughter, the most school I’ve ever missed, but I was fortunate enough to have plenty of leave built up to take these days off. Many of my colleagues are out of leave,” Erik Jennings, a teacher at Lahainaluna High School, said in his testimony. “There’s plenty of colleagues that I have that have not lost everything, and all they have to give is their sick time and they just want to share their sick time with others. And that’s all we’re asking.”

Michelle Rose Brummel, a teacher at Lahainaluna High School, is pregnant, and said that because the DOE does not provide paid maternity leave, she must use what remains of her leave to care for her newborn child — leave “from the same bucket to get (her) life back together.”

“Unfortunately, I had to use some of my leave to view the remains of my home and rummage through the ashes for any keepsakes. I haven’t had the chance to take care of all my paperwork to rebuild our home, so I don’t know when I’ll be back in Lahaina,” Brummel said in her testimony. “To not return will have a negative impact on my students. There will be one less good teacher in a school already in need, but without the proper support, I can’t say that I’ll be able to continue providing the quality education I know I’m capable of.”

In response to leave benefits discussed in written testimony, Hayashi said the DOE had internally prepared language to implement a new leave benefit process in November but that it didn’t move forward at the time. He said that the department will revisit the process for next school year.

The possible need to move out of Lahaina due to not being able to afford housing or an extensive commute further exacerbates the area’s preexisting “critical teacher shortage.”

Erin Vegas will not resume her role teaching a fourth grade inclusion classroom at Princess Nahienaena Elementary School next fall because she “can no longer afford” to live in Lahaina.

“Although I will no longer be with my Lahaina ohana, I knew it was important to come here today and request that you provide the West Maui educators with a shared fire relief leave bank, higher differentials and better mental health resources,” Vegas said in her testimony. “I hope you will consider our request so the remaining teachers of Lahaina won’t have to leave the keiki we’ve known and loved.”

Licensed classroom educators who teach at Lahaina-area schools currently receive a shortage differential of $5,000 per year. Hayashi denied HSTA’s request to raise the differential to $8,000 per year in March.

The DOE posted 33 vacancies in Lahaina area schools this spring, accounting for 15% of the total teaching staff before the wildfires.

“Lahaina was already a hard-to-staff location, and will now be even harder to staff,” Landes said. “If you want our schools to be able to serve the keiki of Lahaina, you need to retain the educators who want to be there.”

In his superintendent’s report, Hayashi said the DOE knows its “existing differentials are effective at recruiting and retaining staff in our schools” but that new differentials are something the department is “willing to explore with the appropriate parties.”

After over an hour of testimony, several members of the board responded to the testifiers, thanking them for traveling from Maui and communicating their needs.

“Sharing aloha with each other through leave is human, and we collectively need to do better to make that happen. That’s not uncommon in humankind, and so that’s something that I hope we can deliver and do better for you,” board member Makana McClellan said. “In terms of mental health, I think that is a long-term thing. It’s not something that should be considered just for the beginning. It’s something that is years, so that is a long-term commitment that you folks are asking and you more than deserve.”

“What you’re asking for is not much. You need so much more. You’re right. We need to do better,” board Vice Chair Kaimana Barcase said. “Superintendent, department, let’s do better.”

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