Glue sticks, composition notebooks and No. 2 pencils aren’t the only must-haves for the new school year at some Hawaii island campuses.
Schools in the Kau-Keeau- Pahoa Complex Area vulnerable to noxious fallout from the ongoing Kilauea eruption also have been stocking up on air purifiers and child-sized particulate-filtering masks.
Lava flows from fissure 8 in Leilani Estates have been relatively stable, even diminishing in recent days, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientists, and earthquakes have not caused any significant damage to campus structures. That left school administrators over the summer break to focus on what is seen as the biggest health threat to the estimated 6,200 students at risk: vog, sulfur dioxide and other volcanic emissions.
Facilities staff from the state Department of Education and the Department of Accounting and General Services visited schools in early July to address eruption-related needs. Actions included installing eight air purifiers and four inflow kits, which draw outside air into the purifiers, at the Kau High & Pahala Elementary cafeteria; four purifiers and two kits at the Naalehu Elementary cafeteria; two purifiers and two kits at portable classrooms at Keonepoko Elementary in Hawaiian Beaches; and two purifiers and two kits for portables at Pahoa Elementary School.
The DOE said each purifier can provide enough fresh air for up to 60 people.
When more funding becomes available, cafeterias at Keonepoko and Pahoa High & Intermediate will be similarly outfitted, with Pahoa and Mountain View elementary schools and Keeau elementary, middle and high schools next on the priority list, according to DOE.
Nearly 150 smaller air purifiers for individual classrooms were purchased by schools and an additional 10 donated by the community.
Work also is underway to create “clean-air shelter spaces” at schools closest to the volcano to provide an on-campus refuge for students and staff who are particularly sensitive to poor air quality.
Meanwhile the DOE and state Department of Health have drafted concise action plans for when sulfur dioxide (SO2), vog and particulate matter exceed safe thresholds.
Chad Keone Farias, superintendent for the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area, said a newly designated safety specialist will serve as a liaison between the DOE, Hawaii County Civil Defense, U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies to ensure swift, clear communication about changing conditions and potential threats.
The cost of the new volcano-related health and safety measures was not available.
In the days immediately following the start of the eruption in early May, schools in the complex area closed twice due to air quality concerns, according to Farias.
“Without having a set protocol, we erred on the side of precaution. We wouldn’t have needed to close if we had the plan in place that we have now,” he said.
Based on recent eruption activity, Farias is optimistic his schools will face few disruptions in the new academic year that starts Tuesday.
“We haven’t had a single day over the last eight or nine weeks when we would say the (air quality) numbers are high enough that we could close,” he said. “If the volcano continues to do exactly what it’s been doing, we do not expect to see schools closing, or there may be sheltering in place but we won’t have full closures.”
Weighing the risks
Considering his school’s proximity to the Kilauea lava zones, Steve Hirakami, founding principal of the Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science, has become something of an amateur meteorologist.
He said he starts his day on his computer at home in Kalapana, reviewing air quality readings from monitors installed on the Pahoa campus and checking websites for information on emission levels, weather conditions and changing wind patterns.
“It can be unpredictable,” he said. “We just gotta keep on our guard.”
After a 2014 lava flow approached to within 500 feet of Pahoa town, the public charter school installed tight-sealing windows and recirculating air conditioners so staff and students could shelter in place if necessary.
In the early weeks of the most recent Kilauea eruption, the academy canceled classes for five days for its roughly 650 students in grades K to 12, according to Hirakami.
Adjustments for the new school year include curtailing some outdoor activities, especially those that could result in students rolling around on the ground where they could come into contact with fine strands of abrasive volcanic glass known as Pele’s hair. Students are being required to wear shoes outdoors for the same reason.
Exposure to SO2 has always been a risk for students and staff at the Volcano School of Arts & Sciences, located just outside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. The public charter school in Volcano village welcomed new students Friday and returning pupils today. Enrollment last year was about 200 in prekindergarten to grade 8.
Principal Kalima Kinney noted the campus has long had safety protocols in place for SO2 episodes and other volcano-related events. The school has ground-based and hand-held air-monitoring systems, and child- and adult-sized N-95 particulate-filtering masks are on hand if needed.
School vehicles and classrooms are stocked with emergency kits and water, and plans include sheltering in place and evacuation to off-campus sites depending on the type of event.
Volcano scientists had reported that despite near-daily collapses and explosions at the summit, SO2 levels and ashfall in the area were very low since the initial eruption activity. On Sunday came word the Halemaumau summit had become “very quiet,” with no collapses since Thursday, possibly signalling the beginning of the end of the eruption.
“We’ve had a few bad days, but it’s something we’ve always dealt with,” Kinney said. “We are able to shelter in place when it gets high, and we have masks. We feel it’s safe to have the kids here.
“The bigger issue is that as long as there are families living here and children living here who need to go to school, the school will be there.”
A more likely problem for Volcano School and other campuses in Kau is the deteriorating condition of Highway 11 by the entrance to the national park. The increased seismic activity has caused cracks and surface damage to the vital roadway, which connects the island’s southernmost district with Hilo and other parts of East Hawaii.
Twenty-two of 51 teachers at Kau High & Pahala Elementary live on the Hilo side of the road damage, Farias said. Should the highway become impassable, it would be a “very, very far drive” on Saddle Road across the island’s midsection.
Kinney said a third of her students live on the Kau side of the compromised section of highway and would face a similar challenge in getting to school.
Construction of a 2-mile bypass road has begun, with county, state and federal agencies cooperating on the project, but it’s unknown when it might be completed.
Should access become an issue, Volcano School already has home-based learning programs, and for students whose parents are not available during the day to supervise their studies, Kinney is looking at establishing a temporary satellite campus in Kau, as she did at River of Life Assembly of God in Pahala in the eruption’s early stages.
While the volcanic activity may have stabilized, the ground continues to shift for administrators trying to pin down enrollment. It is unknown how many students in the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area were displaced by the eruption and how many moved out of the district or left the island altogether.
Enrollment numbers won’t be available until sometime in September, the DOE said.
Lava has destroyed more than 700 structures, and Farias estimated anywhere from 40 to 150 students were directly affected.
He has arranged bus service for kids staying at shelters in Keeau and Pahoa and for students who moved to nearby communities but want to continue at their previous schools.
“Allowing them to attend their home schools brings stability, even for our workforce,” Farias said. “Our workers out there in Pahoa live there, and Pahoa teachers live in Pahoa.”
Hirakami at the Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science said many parents hold onto spots until the last minute, and in some cases school officials don’t even know families have left until they get a request for student records from mainland schools.
After the 2014 lava flow and Tropical Storm Iselle that same year, which caused extended power outages, the academy saw its enrollment drop by 70 students, he said.
“You never know how people are responding, whether they’re saying, ‘The heck with it’ and continuing on with their lives or saying, ‘Lets get the heck out of here,’” Hirakami said.
“We won’t know until the school opens and we start to see them, and sometimes they never come back. We’re staying strong and positive like we did in 2014. We’re a safe haven for a lot of these kids.”
Hirakami said eight teachers have left, and as of last week 650 students had confirmed enrollment.
Kinney said “a few” families in Mountain View who are less aware of the conditions in Volcano dropped out, “so we have worked on getting the word out to the community that it is safe, the earthquakes are not that big and the air quality is not that different from what it has been all along and there has not been a lot of ash.”
‘Heartbeat’ goes on
The towering plume of volcanic gases billowing from fissure 8 less than 6 miles away is of little concern to the Pahoa High School football team as it prepares for its preseason opener against Molokai on Saturday.
“So far, so good,” said football coach and alumnus Chris Midel.
The Daggers play in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation’s eight-man division, and although some students have relocated, Midel said there hasn’t been a dropoff in turnout this season, with about 30 players on the team.
Neither has there been cause to curtail practices due to worsening air quality, Pele’s hair or other potentially risky conditions, he said.
“The kids haven’t been complaining about that kind of thing.”
Midel, an instructor in the school’s construction program sponsored by Hawaii Community College, said that as a parent he has no qualms about his son entering the ninth grade at Pahoa High.
“I just worry about the kids being able to go to school and hoping the school doesn’t shut down,” he said.
A few critics at Pahoa community meetings have questioned why the schools have remained open in light of the potential threats from the volcano. Farias said he understands their concerns, but “the students who live in this area deserve to go to school in this area. The schools are the heartbeat of the community.”