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Lawmakers question DOE about basic safety equipment at Lahaina schools | #schoolsaftey

Hawai‘i lawmakers are urging the Department of Education to revamp safety measures and build more resilient schools in the wake of the Aug. 8 wildfire that killed at least 100 people.

At Thursday’s meeting, the Schools Working Group questioned the DOE over publicizing its evacuation plans and fixing alarm systems in case of a fire.

The panel of lawmakers is one of six interim working groups created by the state House of Representatives to address preparedness for natural disasters. Lawmakers recommended what the education department should address, but the final report will come out Dec. 15.

Education officials went before the Schools Working Group, created by the House. Deputy Superintendent Curt Otaguro updated the panel about what the department has done to prepare for future wildfires and other safety measure.

Deputy Superintendent Curt Otaguro said the department should not publicize its evacuation plans, which would be used in natural disasters but also emergencies such as active shooters.

“We absolutely wouldn’t want to publish something that would put our students in jeopardy, whatever the case may be,” Otaguro said. “So it’s a balance between what we’re doing and doing it versus what we’re doing in advance and publicizing that.”

Otaguro also said the DOE is updating its emergency action plans for all public schools, including evacuation plans for wildfires. In addition, the education department and the state Department of Transportation created emergency exit routes out of Lāhaināluna Road.

Students and staff returned to Lāhaināluna High, Lahaina Intermediate and Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena last month. But community members — even on neighboring islands — still questioned if the schools were prepared for another wildfire.

The Schools Working Group found that several public schools lack basic equipment, including working fire alarms.

The DOE wrote in an email to HPR that 90% of its 258 public schools passed their fire inspections.

But educators at Konawaena Elementary said they haven’t had a working fire alarm for four years.

Anika Agerlie, a Hawaiʻi Island elementary school teacher, urged the Board of Education in written testimony to examine DOE campuses without working fire alarms.

“Our school has been told the cost for a new system is $90,000-$100,000, a price tag that we cannot afford without assistance from the department,” Agerlie wrote in testimony to the BOE.

Courtesy of the Hawai‘i Department of Education

“The department has stated that it will be fixed, however there has been no timeline provided and no sense of urgency, even after a fire broke out on our campus in January 2021. At one point the DOE claimed the system would be replaced over winter break in 2022. That did not happen,” she continued.

On Thursday, Otaguro told BOE members that at least 28 alarm systems need repair, adding that the department needs $41 million to fix the alarms.

“It is inexcusable to have those alarm systems inoperable,” Otaguro said.

Roughly 3,000 students were enrolled in four Lahaina schools before the fire.

Deputy Superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun provided the BOE updates on enrollment. She said 68% of students are enrolled in Lahaina schools in person or through distance learning. Meanwhile, 16% of students enrolled in other public schools in Maui, 10% in non-DOE schools and 4% moved out of state.

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