PAHOA, Hawaii » Teachers and students’ laughter, tears and aloha marked the last day before the approaching lava flow breaks up Keonepoko Elementary School.
Half of the school’s students will move into new portable module classrooms in the parking lot of Keaau High School. The new school, dubbed Keonepoko North, will open Nov. 10. The other students will enroll at Pahoa Elementary or Pahoa Intermediate.
On Thursday the state Department of Education will close Pahoa High and Intermediate, Pahoa Elementary, Keaau High and Keaau Middle schools because of the encroaching lava. "It does impact all of the Pahoa schools in the area," said Keonepoko Elementary Principal Brandon Gallagher.
Keonepoko is not yet directly in the path of the lava, but roads could be jeopardized, Gallagher said.
On Tuesday the school’s students and staff bid aloha to their school during a schoolwide assembly that educators described as an emotional experience.
"We wanted to bring them together one last time," Gallagher said of Keonepoko’s 620 students and 80 teachers and staff.
Hawaiian-studies instructors Kumu Kenny Elliott and Kupuna Rosalina Bareng spearheaded the event at the school, where more than half of the students are of Hawaiian descent.
"It was chicken-skin and tears were flowing," Elliott said.
The instructors started with chants and songs. They also shared a compelling story about how a Hawaiian princess prayed to Pele at the base of Mauna Loa in the 1800s in an effort to stop lava from destroying the town of Hilo.
According to the story, Princess Ruth Luka Keanolani Kauanahoahoa Keelikolani, member of the ruling Kamehameha family, traveled to Mauna Loa to pray for Hilo to be spared from lava-fueled destruction. Shortly after placing her hookupu, or gifts, at the mountain’s base, lava engulfed her offerings and the lava stopped.
Elliott and Bareng, along with other Keonepoko faculty members, then asked the students to write down what the experience meant to them on little pieces of paper, which they fastened to the school’s fence.
Bareng said that sharing Hawaiian traditions and history is helping the schoolchildren cope with the anxiety tied to the situation.
After the assembly, "everyone seemed more calm. They seemed to accept what will be, and they were able to release their feelings without feeling scared or frantic," Bareng said.
Elliott and Bareng said they are also building an ahu, or stone altar, behind the school.
"It’ll be here forever unless Pele decides she wants it," Bareng said.
Gallagher said that overall the last day of school went well.
"We ended on a positive note. It was not a somber event," he said. "It was a buildup to carry that spirit of Keonepoko to whatever campus they’re going. We sang out, way out of there, this morning."
While Keonepoko is not in immediate danger, Gallagher said of this week’s transition, "If we waited until the last second, it could be too late to get things done smoothly." He added that in the aftermath of tropical storms Iselle and Ana, which moved through Hawaii in August and earlier this month, respectively, "we wanted to minimize the loss of time due to this situation for the students. We don’t want to wait much longer."
For Gallagher, who recently moved to Hawaii island’s Puna area from Southern California, the last few months have been busy and interesting. Some 39 homes in the island’s Puna district were reported heavily damaged or destroyed after Iselle hit the island Aug. 8, and 260 people reported some degree of damage, according to Hawaii County officials. The flow from Kilauea’s Puu Oo Crater, which is now inching into Pahoa town, began June 27.
"It was not what I thought it was going to be," he said. "Now I’ve done two hurricanes and a lava flow." He quipped that the Federal Emergency Management Agency "can call for a principal any time now. I’ll be ready."
Staff writer Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.