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Pearl Harbor private school on navigating Navy water crisis and coronavirus pandemic

Holy Family Catholic Academy
Catherine Cruz
Holy Family Catholic Academy

The Holy Family Catholic Academy is one of the many schools that relies on the military water system in the Pearl Harbor area. Principal Celeste Akiu said the Navy this week came to retest the tap water on their campus located just off Valkenburgh St.

For months the school could not use its tap water because it was contaminated with fuel from Red Hill. About 40% of the families who attend are in the military.

The state Department of Health recently gave the all-clear, but many still are not comfortable drinking the water. The school still hands out bottled water provided by the military. Some families provide their children with water from home.

"When you're going through that, you realize how precious water is by having to sacrifice that — and then on top of dealing with the COVID, it was just layer upon layer," Akiu said. "We do use the water for washing of hands. Our cafeteria is still using bottled water where they're able to, but also just be mindful of every morning: Does it smell OK? Does it look OK?"

But step on campus and you hear the familiar schoolyard sounds — children on the playground playing ball and having fun. That's music to the ears of Akiu as Hawaiʻi moves into a new phase of the pandemic and the water crisis.

"Our second graders, COVID hit when they were 5 years old, and half a year of kinder. So all they know is masks and sitting in a desk area where you're 3 to 6 feet next to someone. So they become these little islands. So we need to help them to slowly adjust to being together — and it's OK," she told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Principal Akiu recalled how at the height of the water crisis she sat across from top military brass and told them to check the politics outside the door and think of the children, which is her first priority. The group included Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

Akiu shared her surprise at learning this week that elevated levels of lead were found at the nearby Montessori Center of Pearl Harbor, and wondered if that triggered the retest of their water.

"I will now anxiously await for our results and hope for the best," Akiu said. "I think there's power in information. The more informed you are, be it good news or not pleasant news, at least being informed helps you to create plans either way or be ready to pivot."

The Navy said Wednesday that a water sample collected on March 22 from an indoor staff bathroom sink at the Montessori Center — roughly 2 miles away from the academy — had elevated levels of lead. The Montessori sample tested positive for lead at a level of 30.2 parts per billion, while the action level under federal rules is 15 ppb.

Meanwhile, Akiu said the school is looking forward to graduation and all its trappings for its eighth graders on May 25. It hopes to soon be able to get the water and pandemic woes behind them.

This interview aired on The Conversation on April 8, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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