When the trade winds are blowing, Haley Agbayani breathes a little easier — literally.

The Big Island resident teaches second grade at Pahoa Elementary, one of the many schools impacted by the eruption and lava flow from Kilauea that began in early May.

The school is located in the Puna District on the southeast portion of the island. It has taken the brunt of the volcanic activity — which shows no signs of subsiding — in the form of vog, the noxious mix of sulfur dioxide and other gases that is dangerous to breathe.

In the final weeks of the just-ended school year, Agbayani was forced to pull her classroom windows shut when the air quality was too poor outside.

Roads inside Leilani Estate with smoke from cracked fissures as molten lava flows under heating up the surface in Pahoa, Hawaii.
Roads inside Leilani Estates with smoke from cracked fissures as molten lava flows under the surface in Pahoa last month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Even if we did have the windows shut and closed the doors and kept the fans on, we’d still have gas coming into our classrooms,” the teacher said. “I can only imagine what it would feel like when we go back to school in August and it’s blazing (hot) outside.”

Billowing volcanic ash and vog — which is affecting all parts of the massive island — pose a direct threat to the safety and well-being of thousands of students who will return to the classroom at the peak of the hottest temperatures in the islands. While some officials believe schools are safer than some homes in these conditions, students’ mobility is often restrained while in the classroom and recess time cut short if outdoor conditions are too poor.

At Pahoa Elementary, only two classrooms, out of 40 total, plus its administrative offices are outfitted with air-conditioning. The school came up with a temporary plan last month to allow kids who are asthmatic or have other respiratory problems into the air-conditioned rooms.

But that still leaves other students exposed to the stagnant air, according to Agbayani.

“They complained of headaches, of having to drink water, they were putting their heads down (on their desks),” she said, of the final weeks of May. “There were adults who were feeling terrible — that’s how strong the gases were.”

At Naalehu Elementary, about an hour and a half drive southwest of Pahoa toward the southern tip of the Big Island, teacher Sue Aina said the vog made it hard for her kids to concentrate on top of the heat.

“There was no air coming into the classroom” as the result of closing her windows, she said.

Down that way, ashfall has been an issue as well.

“Our schools get an inordinate amount of ash,” she said. “My car is totally covered, the sidewalks are covered, the house is covered. There’s no way you could clean it all up.”

How Many Classrooms Cooled?

The emergency situation on the Big Island is unfolding in the midst of a DOE initiative to cool classrooms with air-conditioning units with a $100 million legislative appropriation from 2016.

As of the end of May, 1,319 classrooms total have had air-conditioning units installed, according to Dann Carlson, DOE assistant superintendent of the Office of School Facilities and Support Services, meeting Gov. David Ige’s pledge to cool 1,000 classrooms with the state funds.

When all is said and done, plans call for more than 1,400 classrooms statewide to be cooled with the money.

That still leaves roughly 6,000 classrooms around the state without any relief.

This Wednesday, May 23, 2018 photo provided by Aina Akamu, shows gray ash covering the roof of a school building in Pahala, Hawaii. Kau High and Pahala Elementary School were covered in ash that spewed out of a Hawaii volcano explosion and drifted down into their small and rural town. School officials have been handing out ash-filtering face masks. (Aina Akamu via AP)
This May 23 photo provided by Aina Akamu shows ash covering the roof of a school building in Pahoa. AP

While classroom heat remains an issue around the state, the vog conditions on the Big Island demand closer attention to that region, according to some policymakers.

“If we’re going to continue to possibly see this amount of air pollution, we should prioritize air conditioning for the schools that are prone to get the most vog,” said state Rep. Nicole Lowen, whose district includes Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. “I feel it myself: burning eyes, scratchy throat, you feel kind of foggy.

“It’s not a good learning environment.”

It’s unclear how the DOE generates its list of “priority schools” to get air conditioning, but no plans are in place to update the list based on the situation unfolding on the Big Island due to Kilauea, according to spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers.

“We are currently using our established heat abatement priority list,” she told Civil Beat in an email. “We are looking at ways to incorporate more up-to-date temperatures given the increased weather monitoring stations that we’ve installed to better understand the situation; but, we have not established a new list.”

Air Purifiers Considered

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that student heat exposure over an extended period of time reduces academic achievement, decreases productivity of instructional time and that school air-conditioning “offset nearly all of the damaging impacts of cumulative heat exposure on academic achievement.”

State education officials say they are working to address the Big Island situation before students return to class Aug. 6 — although some schools like Naalehu Elementary are operating summer school for half a day. But far fewer students are enrolled this summer than in the past, according to Aina.

“Our priority this summer is going to focus on our impacted schools and respective ‘shelter in place’ facilities,” said Carlson.

Support measures, he told Civil Beat, include “potentially more, and better, air purification systems and better monitoring devices to our impacted schools.”

But some Big Island teachers have found air purifiers aren’t strong enough to dispel high concentrations of sulfur dioxide, which can carry the stench of rotten eggs.

“It’s almost like the air purifier is a placebo,” said Agbayani, who has such a device in her classroom.

The months of August through October are generally considered the hottest in Hawaii. Conditions were so unbearable in Ashley Olson’s classroom at Laihanaluna High on Maui back in August 2015 that she installed an air-conditioning unit she bought herself at Home Depot for $545.

“Given the heat we were experiencing end of July, end of August, all the way to November that year, even if I was told no, I would have done it,” Olson said in an interview. “I would have ended up at the hospital (otherwise).”

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