Nearly 600 Newark school staff are trained to help students with asthma, but few schools are ‘asthma-friendly’

About one in 10 Newark Public Schools employees is trained to support students with asthma. 

A decade ago, all of Newark’s public schools were designated “asthma-friendly,” meaning that all staff members were trained to support students with asthma and each school had a nebulizer, which can administer medication into the lungs. Today, only 11 of 64 of the city’s public schools have the “asthma-friendly” title. Parents and advocates want that to change, especially given that a quarter of Newark children live with asthma — a rate three times higher than the national average.

Of the district’s nearly 6,000 employees, 589 people have completed the American Lung Association’s free asthma basics training program as of February 24, according to the organization’s Director of Health Promotions John Keith. 

New Jersey law requires annual “asthma education opportunities” for educators, but it’s unclear how often they are occurring locally. 

Although asthma-related deaths are rare in children, Newark experienced an average of one death a year from 2010 to 2017, when there were eight asthma-related deaths among Newark minors, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Superintendent Roger León has called asthma one of four health issues that impede student achievement; the chronic respiratory illness is one of the leading causes of absenteeism in Newark. 

In mid-January, days after the publication of a Chalkbeat article that described asthma’s toll on local schools and families and highlighted the deficiencies in asthma training for teachers and staff, the Newark Teachers Union urged all Newark school employees to undergo a free asthma training offered by the American Lung Association.

“The numbers we have so far are pretty good,” John Abeigon, the teachers union president, said. “Hopefully, now, there will be a lower number of incidents, and where there are incidents, the amount of time and action taken to address them will be greatly shortened because there’s no more head-scratching and asking, ‘What’s going on?’”

Abeigon said the union is continuing to work with the district and American Lung Association to push the training, regain the status of “asthma-friendly” in Newark schools, and prepare for an asthma awareness event in the fall. 

“Our ideal situation is that our employees are 100% trained and that the district returns to certified status” with the American Lung Association, he said.