Hawaii Island schools addressing air quality issues from Kilauea eruption


Complex Area Superintendent Chad Keone Farias of the Ka'u-Kea'au-Pahoa Complex Area authored this update on how Big Island schools have worked to ensure campuses can provide safe learning environments amid the Kilauea eruption.

Kilauea volcano eruption

Kilauea Eruption, Fissure 8, June 27, 2018.

Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

As this latest Kilauea eruption stretches into a third month, the health and safety of our students and staff remained top of mind as we prepared to begin the 2018-19 school year.

Ka‘u-Kea‘au-Pahoa campuses opened for students Tuesday and our plan is to keep them open throughout this event. It’s vital that our students not miss out on instructional time. It’s also important that they experience continuity and consistency. Our schools are anchors of our communities.

We worked diligently over the summer to ensure that our campuses can provide safe learning environments during this event. Fortunately it has not posed a lava threat to our campuses, but it is producing harmful emissions, prompting us to focus our efforts on air quality issues.

Work is underway to create clean-air shelter spaces at our schools closest to the volcano. The idea is to provide a refuge on campus for anyone with heightened sensitivities to poor air quality. Cafeterias, which have running water, restrooms and other basic services, have been deemed good shelter spaces along with portables that already accommodate sensitive populations.

Sixteen air purifiers and 10 in-flow kits designed to draw outside air into the purifiers are being installed at:

  • Ka‘u High & Pahala Elementary cafeteria (eight purifiers and four in-flow kits)

  • Na‘alehu Elementary cafeteria (four purifiers and two in-flow kits)

  • Keonepoko Elementary portables (two purifiers and two in-flow kits)

  • Pahoa Elementary portables (two purifiers and two in-flow kits)

The purifiers are capable of removing particulate matter (or vog) and sulfur dioxide, the primary air contaminants caused by the eruption. Each purification system will provide enough fresh air for up to 60 people, so in the case of Ka‘u High & Pahala Elementary, eight purifiers could accommodate a few hundred people.

When additional funding becomes available, the cafeterias at Pahoa High and Intermediate and Keonepoko Elementary are next on the priority list. Other candidate schools are Pahoa Elementary, Mountain View Elementary and Kea‘au Elementary, Middle and High schools. 

The eruption impacts air quality far and wide, depending on winds, so planning is also underway to address schools in Hilo and Kona.

Meanwhile, detailed School Action Plans developed jointly by the state Department of Health and the Department of Education for various air quality events are being implemented at schools islandwide.

These plans lay out the appropriate level of care and actions to take — such as limiting outdoor activities or sheltering in place — based on the levels of airborne concentrations of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and ashfall

We also have a newly designated safety specialist to serve as a liaison between the DOE and the county’s Civil Defense, the U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and other agencies to provide direct communications to school leaders.

We know this situation is unpredictable and we are prepared to make adjustments as needed to continue to best serve our keiki and communities. We look forward to a productive school year ahead and I’m confident that our students will emerge from this experience more resilient than ever.

For the latest information on the eruption’s impact on schools, please visit our DOE resource page.

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