Newtok residents say a portion of the public school will be demolished this summer
For years, residents in Newtok expected severe erosion along the Ninglick River to render the community’s school useless. But it was a generator fire in January that has kept students in the Y-K Delta village from attending regular classes for months. The school was also the center of Newtok’s social events. People played pickup basketball games in the gym. Now residents in Newtok have nowhere to gather.
Today, the school sits, dark and cold. Halfway down the long, main hallway, two tables are piled with tools and the floor is littered with bits and pieces of copper pipe that split open after they froze. Maintenance workers have cut holes in the walls of the girls bathroom to access and repair broken pipes. The boys bathroom is in a similar state of disarray.
It’s not clear what caused the fire. A brand new generator was installed in March. Plumbing repairs got underway and teachers held classes in makeshift classrooms in the gym. But that only lasted for three weeks. A malfunction with the fuel control valve took the new generator offline in the middle of April.
More than 40 students in Kindergarten through 12th grade now attend classes in Newtok’s Holy Family Catholic Church. There’s no running water and no bathroom, so class times are limited to two hours. Pews serve as seats. A white board is propped up in front of the altar and a five-gallon bucket in the center aisle catches the occasional drip from a ceiling that is heavily water damaged. Principal Dawn Lloyd said everyone is doing their best to manage.
“It's not a great learning environment,” said Lloyd. “They’re definitely learning. They are not learning as much as they would if they were in normal school, doing full hours with full facilities and are able to be kids,” she said.
Parents like Carolyn George are worried. “They’re missing out on so much learning,” she said. She said two years of on-and-off remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic had already taken its toll. Three of George’s five daughters are enrolled in school in Newtok, and like nearly 50 other families, George is on the waiting list for a new house nine miles southeast at a new village site called Mertarvik.
“I've been wanting to transfer my kids out, because of the school, but then I am afraid if I transfer my kids out, then I’m not gonna get a house anymore,” said George.
Last fall, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok devoured more than half the land that was left between the river and the school. Village residents say the school district plans to send a demolition crew to Newtok this summer to tear down the back half of the building. But, Lower Kuskokwim School district administration hasn’t announced formal plans yet.
Kids who remain in the community after this summer will attend classes in what’s left of the building - that’s if the plumbing is fully repaired and power and heat are restored. A timeline for that work is currently unknown.