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Without electricity, there’s been no public school in Newtok or Mertarvik for over a week

For the fourth time in two years, kids in Newtok will head to class in a building that is not the public school. That’s because the public school building has no electricity and the problem can’t be fixed. Nine miles away in Mertarvik, where Newtok residents are working to relocate, the makeshift school also doesn’t have power.


In January 2023, a catastrophic fire destroyed the generator that powers the Newtok Ayaprun school. As a result, the pipes froze and broke inside the walls. Principal Dawn Lloyd offered a tour of the destroyed generator in April 2023.

“It was a very large fire and the wind was blowing away from the school, thank goodness, because if it had been blowing toward the school, that would have been the end of the school and who knows what beyond that,” Lloyd said.

Since then, the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) has replaced the Newtok school’s generator two times. LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins declined to be interviewed for this story, but she acknowledged that Newtok is facing a myriad of challenges.

A climate-change driven environmental disaster has wreaked havoc on Newtok for decades. The permafrost underneath the community is melting. The village sits along the Ninglick River. High tides from the Bering Sea combined with fierce fall storms mean that more than 70 feet of land have been lost to erosion since the 1990s. The back end of the school is at risk of falling into the river. In the fall of 2023, a construction crew arrived with heavy equipment to take apart five classrooms and the library at the back end of the building.

In the last two years, the 25 students who go to school in Newtok have attended class in four different locations. For a time they were in the school gym, but that’s no longer usable. They've also had classes in the tribal office. In the spring of 2023 they were briefly set up in a deteriorating Catholic church with a leaking roof. Kids sat in the church pews and grade levels were separated by the center aisle. A whiteboard was propped up near the altar. The high school kids took up the back corner.

According to Hankins, LKSD will have to find yet another location to hold classes in Newtok because the school’s current generator, the replacement for the replacement, cannot be fixed.

Eventually, everyone who lives in Newtok will move 9 miles across the Ninglick River to Mertarvik. Only half of Newtok has been able to relocate so far because there’s not enough available housing in the new village.


Currently the lights are also out at Mertarvik’s Evacuation Center (MEC). The building is being used temporarily by LKSD for the school until construction on a new school is completed in time for the start of the 2025 school year. For over a week, the 58 kids who go to school in Mertarvik haven’t been to class.

Calvin Tom is the tribal administrator. For months he’s been wrestling with two small generators that power Mertarvik. With an increase in population this year as more people move from Newtok to Mertarvik, there’s also been an increased demand for electricity and one of the generators finally quit.

“We were running the town on one small generator, but with limited power, so we had to shut off the school and the water plant because it was just too high of a load,” Tom said. “We would try to alternate power and have community members off and warm up the school, but it was just too high in power.”

With the power off, it’s not clear if water pipes in the evacuation center have frozen.

Strong winds and blowing snow have kept airplanes grounded in the region, delaying the arrival of mechanics and parts to Newtok and Mertarvik. On March 25, a mechanic finally made it to Mertarvik to help install a new generator that was delivered by plane last week, but the generator sits a quarter inch lower than anyone expected. “So we have the mechanics going out and getting prefabricated engine block holders just to mount it, and they’re gonna come out [again] with welders too so that way it fits nice and snug,” Tom said. It will be at least another week before power is fully restored.

In all, more than 80 kids between the two communities haven’t been to school for most of the month of March. They were on spring break for the first week of the month and returned for only three days before the lights went out on both sides of the river.

In a phone call, Hankins said that she had verbal confirmation from the state education commissioner that the missed days will be waived and students won’t make them up at the end of the year.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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