Hawaiian school in lava's path to reopen

Volcano threat is downgraded, but no opening date for Keonepoko Elementary has been announced

Hawaii state education officials closed Keonepoko Elementary School on the Big Island last October, as lava threatened the small town of Pahoa.

Students were relocated to safer schools, but not before they wrote dozens of letters beseeching Madam Pele to spare their beloved campus. They hung the notes from the school's chain-link fence with red ribbon, the volcano goddess' favorite color.

Their prayers seem to have worked.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory downgraded the lava alert level from "warning" to "watch." And on Monday, the state Department of Education announced that Keonepoko Elementary will reopen in the coming school year because the threat from Kilauea has subsided.

"Many families were affected by our contingency plans to safeguard access to education, and we appreciate their cooperation and understanding through all of it," Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said in a written statement posted Monday on the department's website.

"We now have a ton of details to work out before making any official announcement on dates or assignments; however, it is important to let families and staff know where we stand," Matayoshi said. "The decision to reopen Keonepoko Elementary extends beyond just the facility. We want to be very thoughtful about our approach."

Kilauea's most recent eruption has been bubbling nonstop for more than 30 years, wiping out the small town of Kalapana in the early 1990s, destroying more than 200 structures, forcing parishioners to roll Star of the Sea Painted Church out of danger.

Then, it largely calmed down.

Until last summer.

The volcano's latest outbreak -- called the June 27th lava flow -- threatened to cleave Pahoa in two, incinerate buildings and strand half the town. In addition to the elementary school, stores closed and many residents moved to safer ground in preparation.

But Pele is fickle. Although Kilauea continues to erupt, the danger has subsided for now.

"In recent weeks, the Pu'u 'O'o lava flows nearest to the town of Pahoa became inactive," the volcano observatory announced on March 25. "Because the immediate threat from the June 27th lava flow has been reduced, we are reducing the alert level...

"We anticipate that it will be at least months before lava could reach to within 1 mile or 1 week of homes or infrastructure."

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