MAUNAKEA — The demonstrators occupying Maunakea Access Road have thinned to a skeleton crew after the start of the school year, but students and teachers still find time to return to the mountain.
While the camp at the access road regularly attracted more than 1,000 demonstrators daily since protests began in July, the regular attendance has dropped to only a few hundred since the University of Hawaii’s fall semester began this week.
Demonstrator Presley Ke‘alaanuhea Ah Mook Sang said she guessed that a majority of the protesters — who call themselves kia‘i, or protectors, of Maunakea — have been college students or teachers, and attendance took a sharp dive on Monday.
Ah Mook Sang is herself a Hawaiian language instructor at the University of Manoa, but also has organized a makeshift school at the camp called Pu‘uhuluhulu University, named after the nearby hill across from the access road. Since the early days of the protest, volunteer teachers and elders presented 20 lessons each day for anybody to attend, each class attracting dozens of students.
As attendance has dropped, Ah Mook Sang has also reduced the hours of the University. While there are still 20 lessons presented each day between Fridays and Sundays, the University will only hold workshops on weekdays, she said.
But with many demonstrators now needing to manage academic obligations off the mountain, teachers and students must make regular commutes to school and back, often to other islands.
Mahealani Ahia, a Ph.D. student at UH Manoa, said she flies to Oahu every week in order to attend classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and returns to Maunakea in time to teach classes on the weekends.
“It’s not so bad,” Ahia said. “I already have friends who make that sort of commute and they’ve helped me learn how to live in two places at once.”
Ahia, who teaches writing classes at Pu‘uhuluhulu University, said she occasionally sees fellow UH Manoa students on Maunakea, while she has also organized similar lessons on Oahu during her return trips.
“It’s worth it,” Ahia said. “It’s free education for everyone from some of our best thinkers.”
Ah Mook Sang said some local schools — largely charter and immersion schools — have sent classes to the camp for field trips since the school year began.
Ahia added that, sometimes, the visiting students present lessons to the instructors themselves, presenting what they’ve learned in history class, for example.
Kahala Johnson, another UH Manoa Ph.D. student, said he is in the middle of his Ph.D. examination period, meaning he has no immediate obligation to return to Oahu. However, he said, other students may not be able to visit the mountain without penalties: the University has told instructors to rigorously log and report absences, Johnson said.
“Still, the numbers here on the weekends are similar to what they were like in July,” Ah Mook Sang said.
Although students may not be able to regularly attend school on the mountain, some still try. Oahu resident Onikiniki Sadaoka said her children’s school excused a two-week absence to visit the mauna, so long as the keiki completed their allotted coursework during their visit.
“A lot of their homework was journals, but they also have their math homework and a bunch of workbooks,” Sadaoka said, adding that her children — aged 10, seven, six, three and two — were sad to leave the mountain behind.
Meanwhile, Hawaiian immersion schools around the state have seen boosts in enrollment since July. Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino, located in Kealakekua saw 50 more students attend since July — increasing total enrollment by about 20 percent — while Ka Umeke Ka‘eo in Hilo saw 10 more students, boosting total attendance to 40.
“I can’t say for sure if it’s because of the TMT stuff, but it happened around the same time,” said Paea‘i Navas, an office assistant at Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino.
Attendance at Maunakea is expected to be high through the long weekend, with full days of lessons planned through Monday.
Ah Mook Sang said that Labor Day also falls on the birthday of Queen Lili‘uokalani, which will be observed on the mauna with a day-long event including more lessons, hula and more.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.