Newark Teachers Union, district urge staff to take asthma training this week

The Newark Teachers Union and school district are encouraging all staff members to take an online asthma training course during this week’s professional development day.

The push to participate in the free American Lung Association training comes in the wake of a Chalkbeat Newark article that told the story of two recent childhood asthma deaths, described the toll the chronic illness has taken on local schools and families, and highlighted the deficiencies in asthma training for teachers and staff. A day after the article’s publication, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon promised to make sure all school employees received asthma training.

“It broke our hearts when we read that article, and it brought to our attention that this is happening,” Abeigon said. “God forbid any adult is caught in a situation and doesn’t know what to do.”

The American Lung Association trains participants to recognize and manage asthma triggers, better understand asthma action plans, and recognize and respond to a breathing emergency. 

One in every four children in Newark has asthma — three times higher than the national average — and Newark has experienced about one asthma-related death in minors each year from 2010 to 2017, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. As Chalkbeat reported, grieving parents and educators have asked for more training for teachers about how to assist asthmatic students and called on schools to increase awareness.

Superintendent Roger León recently called asthma one of four health issues that impede student achievement; the illness is one of the leading causes of absenteeism in Newark.

Though New Jersey law requires annual “asthma education opportunities” for educators, it’s unclear how often they are occurring in Newark. While all of Newark’s public schools were designated “asthma-friendly” a decade ago — meaning all staff were trained to deal with asthma and each school had a nebulizer — now only 11 of 64 schools have the title. 

“We’re hoping this returns the district back to an accredited asthma-safe district. At one time, the district was certified,” Abeigon said. “I can’t remember when we dropped the ball, but we’re going to work to regain that certification.”

Now, school employees can use their Newark Public Schools email address to register for the American Lung Association’s online learning module, which takes about 45 minutes to complete. 

An email sent out by Abeigon says that the district has informed school administrators that the staff development day on Wednesday is a good time for teachers to complete the training. After employees take the course, they’re encouraged to add their certificate of completion to their portfolio by the end of the month.

The online training offered is basic, which Abeigon said is what every employee should receive at a bare minimum.

“An asthma attack doesn’t keep a schedule,” Abeigon said. “In the event the school nurse is unavailable or in transit, we didn’t want school staff wondering what to do next.” 

Abeigon said Superintendent Roger Leon is “absolutely on board” with the effort to boost asthma training, and the two plan to discuss further steps in the district certification process. He said the teachers union is assessing how many educators have received training and talks with the district about how to better serve students with asthma are ongoing.