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Hawaii school copes with coating of ash, fumes from erupting volcano

May 29, 2018
The Kau High and Pahala Elementary School in Pahala, Hawaii, is 20 miles from the active volcano Kilauea

The Kau High and Pahala Elementary School in Pahala, Hawaii, has been trying to cope with gritty, gray ash that has been spewing from a volcano some 20 miles away.

The Associated Press reports that the smog and ash from eruptions of Kilauea have led to many absences at the school. Vice Principal Deisha Davis says as many as 48 percent of students were out one day last week.

The ash is a new irritant for a town that’s used to coping with volcanic smog from noxious fumes seeping from the summit and eruption vents. Pahala, near the southern end of the Big Island of Hawaii, is downwind from subdivisions that needed to evacuate after lava started spewing from cracks in the ground three weeks ago.

Teacher Aina Akamu gave final exams last week to his students as they sat on bleachers or the floor of the basketball court in the gym. He moved his class there after he and his students could no longer stand the volcanic ash covering his classroom floor, chairs and desks.

During intermittent explosions at Kilauea’s summit, ash shoots high into the sky and drifts down onto the small, rural campus and nearby areas.

No matter how often Akamu sweeps the floors or how many times custodians spray water on buildings, a dusting of ash leaves a normally green tennis court looking gray.

“It keeps blowing around in the wind,” he says. “It’s like we’re fighting a losing battle. We just keep wiping and wiping.”

School officials have been monitoring air quality. Students have been kept inside when sulfur dioxide emissions were high.

Officials have handed out ash-filtering masks, though they keep running out because some kids misplace them. There’s a “safe room” with air conditioning for students and faculty to go when it’s hard to breathe.

“You walk outside, and you feel like your body is dusty,” Akamu says. “When wind blows, it gets in your eyes.”

It’s so gritty that when you rub your skin, it leaves small scratches, he said.

An eruption Thursday night sent an ash cloud about 10,000 feet into the air. 

Akamu is hoping his school could get some help cleaning the campus. Some wonder why it hasn’t closed.

“Their staff is cleaning daily," says Lindsay Chambers, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. "If there was ever an issue with safety, the school would close. By staying open and providing that normalcy, the feedback has been that it’s helpful.”

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