Newark students struggle in hot schools amid heat wave

A woman places her arm around a small child’s shoulder.
This week, Newark residents saw temperatures soaring into the 90s. Mothers packed frozen water bottles for their kids as some say finding cold water in schools is hard. (Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat)

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The night before the second day of classes in Newark, Quera McGilvery placed water bottles in the freezer so her two children could enjoy ice cold water throughout the school day. 

But by the time her freshman son, Tyquir, was done with first period on Wednesday, he noticed that the frozen water in his bottle had completely melted. His school doesn’t have central air conditioning or water fountains dispensing cold water and relies on fans or window units to ward off the heat. 

With temperatures soaring into the 90s this week, his water was only getting warmer.  

Newark Public Schools students returned to classes this week amid a heat wave bringing thick humidity and scorching temperatures to the city of more than 300,000 people. The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for Newark and the surrounding areas earlier this week while school districts in other parts of the state dismissed students early from school.

This week, Newark residents saw temperatures as high as 97 degrees on Thursday. 

Parents such as McGilvery were hoping Newark would issue early dismissals, especially for students who are enduring the heat with no air conditioning and few operable water fountains in the district’s older buildings. Newark Public Schools students followed a normal schedule this week. 

“Can you imagine having to travel up and down a stairwell with people everywhere around you in hot weather?” said McGilvery whose son goes to American History High School. “How could you really sit there and think straight in this heat?” 

Studies have shown Newark is one of the hottest cities in the nation. The average school building in the district was built more than 90 years ago, and many suffer from inoperable water fountains, outdated boilers, no central air conditioning systems, and dilapidated restrooms. 

Rundown buildings can lower students’ enthusiasm for school and, in some cases, make their learning environments uncomfortable. Last year, Newark worked on opening new schools such as Nelson Mandela Elementary School and building new ones such as the School of Architecture and Interior Design. 

The district has plans to build more schools and undertake repairs at more than 60 existing schools, but little is known about the work to install central heating, ventilation, and air conditioner systems in older schools such as Lincoln, Lafayette, and Avon elementary schools, among others. The district also approved a nearly $5 million contract to purchase and install touchless water fountains across all district schools but the installation work is ongoing. 

Newark Public Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Jacquetta Thomas is the mother of a senior student at Eagle Academy High School, located on the fourth floor of Weequahic High School. Thomas, an alum of Newark Public Schools, says she dealt with no air conditioners and faulty water fountains as a student and also faced the problem with her other son, a now-22-year-old alum of American History. 

“We need our kids to go to school to get funding but kids will be uncomfortable sitting in their hot classrooms,” Thomas said. 

On the first day of school, Thomas packed frozen water bottles for her son since the water fountains at Eagle and Weequahic don’t work properly, she said. On the same day, her grandson, who goes to Chancellor Avenue, stained his polo shirt with blood after a nosebleed due to the heat. 

Thomas said she spoke with Newark’s school business administrator Valerie Wilson and offered to donate window air conditioner units for classes but was told the district was working on other solutions. She doesn’t understand why the problem continues. 

“Wilson said she’s been handling the budget for 27 years and for 27 years she couldn’t find money in the budget for an AC?” said Thomas about Wilson, who’s been the district’s business administrator since 1996. 

Teachers are also dealing with the effects of the heat wave. 

One teacher at Peshine Elementary School, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of losing employment, said the window unit in her eighth grade classroom broke and “it’s been really hot in the hallways.” 

On the first day of school, she also got dizzy in her classroom and her students kept asking if they could get an air conditioner. The water fountains at her school do not work properly and cold water isn’t easily accessible, the teacher said. 

“Everyone was coming to me asking me if I had water or ice. I felt so bad I ran out,” the teacher said.

Last year, Superintendent Roger León promised that touchless water fountains would be installed districtwide by the start of last school year but the water fountains are found in only a few schools including NJ Regional Day, Newark School of Global Studies, and John F. Kennedy School. McGilvery said she has seen touchless water fountains at other schools but none at American History or University High School where her daughter goes. As of late August, the district reported fountains still needed to be installed in 16 schools.

Since Monday, the Newark Teachers Union has asked the district to let students out early this week and encouraged parents to keep their children home or pick them up early if they felt the need to do so, said union president John Abeigon.

Union officials also encouraged teachers to use their PTO time if they felt unwell, he added. Having no air conditioners in some schools is a recurring problem that happens every year, Abeigon said. 

“I’m not blaming the current administration but the neglect of having no AC in schools has been going on for decades,” he added.

Weather forecasts predict lower temperatures for Newark next week but as children continue to deal with hot learning environments, parents such as McGilvery and Thomas will keep freezing water bottles and advocating for their kids. 

The district “has billions of dollars and they’re building this building and that building,”  McGilvery said. “Worry about the schools you have right now and take care of them.”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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