Board members respond: ‘You were right. We need to do better.’

Message received: The Hawaiʻi Board of Education promised action Thursday after more than a dozen Maui teachers flew to Oʻahu to ask for more support following devastating wildfires last August.

Designated as a hard-to-staff location for years, West Maui is experiencing a critical teacher shortage as many educators are still piecing together their lives, or were forced to leave the area entirely.

Educators on Maui are asking for increased shortage differentials for West Maui teachers, the creation of a fire relief leave bank, and more robust mental health support for all who were impacted, including displaced students.

Erin Vegas, a fourth grade teacher at Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena Elementary, said, “A teacher cannot effectively perform their job of being an educator, nurse, therapist, parent, mentor, counselor, cheerleader, event planner, coach, and all the roles we take on each and every day when we don’t have the time or finances to care for ourselves and our personal lives.”

The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association previously submitted these requests to the schools superintendent; all of which the department denied.

The union arranged and covered leave and transportation so that Maui educators could deliver their messages to the board in person Thursday.

At the end of the board’s general business meeting, following more than an hour of public testimony, Maui County board member Kahele Dukelow told educators, “One of the things that we should always do is to listen and then to move forward and make the best decisions we can based on what you tell us you need, not what we think you need.

“We have to do whatever we can do to address the situation,” Dukelow said.

Increased differentials are necessary to keep educators in West Maui

At the beginning of the school year, 214 teachers taught at Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena Elementary, King Kamehameha III Elementary, Lahaina Intermediate, and Lahainaluna High, the four schools directly impacted by the Lahaina wildfire.

However, approximately a dozen Lahaina-based educators temporarily transferred to other campuses for health, housing, and other personal reasons, and a few educators took leave in the fall or for the whole year.

In the spring, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education posted 33 vacancies among the four schools, which amounts to more than 15% of the total teaching staff.

Licensed classroom educators who teach at a Lahaina-area school currently receive a shortage differential of $5,000 per year. HSTA requested this differential be increased to $8,000 per year.

Schools superintendent Keith Hayashi denied the request, saying “The Department is not willing to consider this request at this time.”

Ashley Olson, Lahainaluna High English learners inclusion teacher and coordinator, told the board about a colleague who “was barely making ends meet with her Alaska retirement and her DOE salary. Her lease is ending on the 31st of this month, and her landlord is perfectly willing to renew that lease. She’s currently paying $3,300 a month, and he is completely willing to renew that lease for $8,000 a month, because that’s what FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is willing to pay for rentals.”

Erik Jennings, Lahainaluna High special education teacher, said, “Yesterday, four teachers at our faculty meeting said that they’re leaving. So that’s four more — I think we’re short of 10 teachers at the high school now for next school year. Two teachers that were supposed to come, I don’t know if they’re going to be here because there’s nowhere to live in Lahaina.”

Vegas, a Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena Elementary fourth grade teacher, said, “Due to the wildfires, I will no longer be a member of the Lahaina community. I have to leave the only home I’ve known for the last seven years to move to another island because I can no longer afford to live in the place I love, the only place I’ve ever truly felt at home.

“When I broke the news to my students on Monday, they all shouted, ‘Why?! You can’t leave us!’ I had to take a moment to compose myself so I wouldn’t burst into tears,” Vegas continued. “I explained to them that I didn’t want to leave, but I wasn’t able to find housing that I could afford for the next school year. They all look so sad, and many of them said, ‘Neither can we.’”

Staff and students need more mental health support

When fire devastated Lahaina, 167 teachers lived in the area and 149 taught at West Maui’s four schools. More than 100 educators and retirees lost their homes in the disaster.

Luxmi Quall, a Lahaina Intermediate teacher, recalled in tears, “I got blocked in on Front Street with many others trying to frantically flee the fire. The feeling of thinking I was going to burn alive in my car, I cannot not get that feeling out of my head. Survivor’s guilt is serious, and it is hard to deal with. Many of us are struggling.

Quall said, “The worst part of it is knowing that children, innocent children of all ages, suffered, died, and are dealing with massive problems. Properly helping us with mental health support to care for our children and our staff is of the utmost importance.”

In his report to the board Thursday, Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi said the department “cares for the physical and mental well being of students and staff who are directly and indirectly impacted through unprecedented investments in resources, support, and training on the ground.”

Responding to their call for mental health support, Hayashi asked educators to “please send Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong a list of students who have been turned away from school counseling” and submit the names of schools that need additional support.

Many educators said schools, staff, and students should not need to ask for this help.

HSTA Maui Chapter President Mike Landes, who teaches social studies at Lahainaluna High, said the additional, and much appreciated, counseling Lahaina schools received for students and staff “has since ended, and our regular counseling staff now have to handle the entire burden on top of their normal duties.

“Our other schools across Maui that have taken in our displaced students have gotten no additional counseling personnel at all. The app the DOE keeps touting is not enough. We need additional human counselors at every school where there are fire-impacted students. You don’t need a list of names. That’s just a cop-out. Send the help.”

Robert Livermore, a King Kamehameha III Elementary kindergarten teacher, said, “Lahaina teachers are supporting the needs of the traumatized keiki who were in the west side, and you’re here making decisions for us while I’m in Lahaina supporting 5- and 6-year-old survivors who were triggered by the wind.

“All remaining Lahaina teachers are not here for themselves, but for their students. Currently we do not have enough staff to properly care for displaced students. Our educators are being pulled from servicing students in need, including special education, to fill in for teachers who can’t secure a substitute,” Livermore said.

Victoria Zupancic, curriculum, testing, and Title I coordinator at Lahainaluna High, said, “There has yet to be an all-staff training on trauma informed practices, and we need it. Our second day of instruction next year is going to be the anniversary of the fire, and we are not prepared.”

Educators advocate for dedicated fire relief leave sharing

More than nine months after the disaster, many Maui educators impacted by fire have already exhausted their leave. Teachers are limited to six personal leave days per year, and very few qualify for vacation leave.

Yet they continue to have to miss work to tend to fire-related activities, such as clearing their land, moving from hotel rooms, filing insurance claims and working with FEMA, making site visits, etc.

With no leave left, they’re forced to take leave without pay, which exacerbates their financial strain.

Michelle Abad Brummel, a math teacher at Lahainaluna High, said, “I’m pregnant, but the department does not provide paid maternity leave so I must use all of what remains of my leave for the measly six weeks I’m allotted to care for my newborn child. This is from the same leave bucket to get my 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 time to take care of all my paperwork to rebuild our home so I don’t know when I’ll be back in Lahaina. This uncertainty has taken a toll on my mental and physical health. I question returning until I have a home there again,” Brummel said.

“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,” she said.

In a letter to the HIDOE, the HSTA asked for the creation of a temporary Fire Relief Leave Bank “into which any BU05 employees may donate sick leave for use by other unit members impacted by the fires.” This type of leave bank is commonly offered to both private and public sectors after a natural disaster.

The HIDOE’s response was, “The Department is not willing to consider these requests at this time.”

As of Thursday, more than 600 educators from across the state signed HSTA’s petition, pledging their support for a shared Fire Relief Leave Bank and willingness to donate leave days should one be created.

Erik Jennings, Lahainaluna High special education teacher, said, “I’m just asking the board to consider how would you want to help your colleagues if you could? 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.”

‘We need to do better.’

The Board of Education concluded its meeting by thanking educators and letting them know, “We heard you loud and clear,” said board member Makana McClellan from the City and County of Honolulu.

Board of Education Vice Chair Kaimana Barcarse from Hawaiʻi County told educators, “What you’re asking for is not much. You need so much more. You were right. We need to do better.”

He added, “Superintendent, department, let’s do better. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s do it.”