NEWARK, N.J. (PIX11) — New Jersey’s largest city issued an excessive heat warning late on Tuesday afternoon, lasting through Thursday of this week. The warning was issued in the same hour that children were dismissed from their first day of classes in Newark. Now, the school district tries to balance cooling students — even in some schools without air conditioning — with a variety of other challenges.
At Newark Public Schools headquarters downtown, staff members, administrators, and some teachers wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “A Brand New Day” on the first day of school. However, most of the schools in the state’s largest public school district are by no means brand new, as Superintendent Roger Léon pointed out in an interview.
“Some of our buildings were raised as late as 10 years prior to Lincoln being president of the United States,” the superintendent said. “That’s Lafayette Street School.”
That school, named after the street on which it’s located, in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood, was in glaring sunlight on Tuesday, as Newark baked in 90+-degree temperatures. The shades in every classroom were pulled down, and all of the windows were open.
Mathias Bosquez-Ceballos had just come out of his fourth grade classroom, and had beads of sweat on his face.
He described himself as being “a little bit very hot,” as he left school early for an appointment. “I’m OK,” he added.
Superintendent Léon had also been a student in Newark Public Schools when he was a child. Léon, 54, mentioned that he’d attended Hawkins Street Elementary.
“Today we have ACs in the windows” at the school, he said. “When I was in school, there were no air conditioners, at all.”
Most of the schools in this city, which serve about 40,000 students, have air conditioning. However, even at a place like Louise Spencer Elementary, in the Central Ward, where there are window air conditioning units, the levels of cooling can be uneven.
That’s what Biyanka Johnson, a Spencer Elementary parent, said that her children had told her.
Instead, Johnson said, she preferred that her children’s school building, as well as all others across the city, have state-of-the art cooling.
“They need to invest in central air,” she said. “I know it’s an old building, but central air would be a lot, a lot better.”
That may be easier said than done in a district with one of the greatest financial inequities in the state, according to an analysis by Wallethub.
Even though Newark last year boosted its average attendance rate to over 94 percent, and its graduation rate to over 81 percent, and lowered its chronic absence rate to 18 percent — its lowest in decades — its administrators said it faces challenges trying to maintain or improve those challenges. Keeping schools cool, said the superintendent, is part of a variety of challenges the district faces, simultaneously.
“We monitor these things very, very carefully,” Léon said in an interview, “whether it’s very, very hot, or very very cold, to make sure children and staff are safe.”
Parents who spoke with PIX11 News said that overall, the school district is doing its best in the midst of the excessive heat advisory issued by Newark City Hall.
Still, said Carlos Alvarez, a parent at Spencer Elementary, “I’m a little nervous.”
Justice Lee, the aunt and caregiver for two students at the school, expressed concern for children at some other schools in Newark, which don’t have AC. “I feel bad, actually,” she said. “They need air conditioners.”
Superintendent Léon said that schools and after school programs will continue this week normally, despite the high heat conditions. The Newark teachers’ union did not respond to a request for comment.