Before a wildfire decimated the Hawaiian village of Lahaina last week, high school teacher Mike Landes was the person who always argued that academics came first – before concerns about kids’ social and emotional development.
However, when parents, instructors, and children return to school after wildfires decimated the community in the western section of Hawaii’s island of Maui, he now believes that mental health must take first.
A wind-whipped blaze that roared through Lahaina, west Maui, killed at least 111 people, with the death toll still rising. It demolished King Kamehameha III Elementary School, damaged three additional campuses, and destroyed or damaged almost 2,200 residences and structures.
Getting kids back in school poses numerous challenges: hundreds have already enrolled in schools in areas outside the burn zone. Some will be too traumatized to come when their schools in Lahaina reopen. Some parents will opt to move rather than rebuild.
Wherever they attend, school can be a step toward normalcy for survivors in a community grappling with how-to pick-up lives while carrying a load of mourning.
The fire swept through Lahaina on the very day that many students, including freshmen at Lahainaluna High School where Landes works and children at the elementary campus where his wife teaches were scheduled to return from summer vacation. But classes were canceled due to the high winds that propelled the blaze.
Landes’s own two children were scheduled to be in school in Lahaina that day.
“Social and emotional well-being, care for people who are traumatized – I think it would be fair to say that’s what would need to come first,” said Landes, who heads the Maui chapter of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
To help students, parents and staff, the Hawaii State Department of Education is offering in-person and telehealth counseling services, according to the department’s website.
“The teachers, their main goal is to make these kids feel as normal as possible and just get them back to a normal school life,” said Courtney Walter, a parent of three elementary age students who went back to school last week in Kihei on the south side of the island where Landes also lives with his family.