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Dozens of Newtok students attend classes in a school that’s coming apart

The Ninglick River has been edging closer and closer to the back end of Newtok’s Ayaprun School for decades. This fall, the riverbank finally caught up to the building.

“We lost 21 feet in the fall storms this year, which is unprecedented,” said Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) Director of Operations Kim Sweet. She said that the loss happened in just a few weeks.

“It's very sobering in that we know in our minds that erosion is happening, and we know that the water is coming closer and closer. It's also, there's a certain helplessness that we feel, like how do we get this to stop and knowing that we can't get it to stop,” Sweet said.

Sweet said that school district administrators are doing their best to keep students safe “even though this environmental disaster is happening right literally underneath our feet.”

The school district can’t abandon the building entirely, so they've decided to demolish a 75-foot stretch of hallway and five classrooms that sit dangerously close to the river’s edge.

“Hopefully by doing so we can then remain in the rest of the building through the rest of the year,” said LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins.

At least two classrooms have already been torn down. In January 2024, construction crews will return to take apart the remaining section. Hankins said that the work is easier when things are hard and frozen because the land under Newtok is essentially mushy, waterlogged tundra when it's thawed.

"This summer was so much more complicated because of the need to reach the building and do that along the edge where the erosion was happening,” Hankins said. “So we're eager for freeze up for sure. And then, you know, of course we have Plan B's, and then we will wait and see.”

The demolition means that the inside of the usable part of the building is now a jumbled mess. The principal and secretary use the main hallway as a makeshift office. Gym classes also happen in the hallway, and staff move a mobile curtain in place in that same hallway when it's time to counsel students one-on-one. What was stored in the classrooms slated for demolition now takes up space in the school gym.

Buckets of industrial cleaners and solvents are piled near the walls. There are also boxes of toilet paper, two-ply tissue, and a mish-mash of tools, machinery, and a shop vac. These are stacked alongside paper, bookshelves, boxes of old teaching aids, and other educational flotsam.

Like in so many other rural Alaska communities, Newtok’s school gym is used for basically everything. People came here to socialize; dance, or Yuraq in Yup’ik; and play basketball. But now, extracurricular school activities that require gym space have been curtailed.

The loss of the gym as a community gathering space also raises safety concerns. Last year, the fierce storm surge brought on by the remnants of Typhoon Merbok claimed 30 feet of land left soft and vulnerable by a warming climate. Dozens of people sheltered in the school gym. If there were another storm like that this year, or any other emergency, the gym would be off limits.

"So the loss of the emergency evacuation shelter has been terrifying,” said Newtok Ayaprun School Principal Dawn Lloyd. “Fortunately there's been no reason for it, so it's been okay.”

Lloyd said that there is not another safe building in Newtok in the event of an emergency. A catastrophic generator fire in January 2023 further complicated the situation. After the school's main power source was destroyed, pipes inside froze and broke. Now the building has no running water or functioning bathrooms. The kids eat pre-wrapped sandwiches, little cups of packaged fruit cocktail, and maybe an apple or a cookie for lunch.

“We're hauling water from the washeteria from the water treatment plant,” Sweet said. She said that options for managing this situation are limited.

“We have a waiver to serve emergency meals that do not need any water for preparation, and students have scheduled bathroom breaks,” said Sweet.

Those bathroom breaks are also complicated. Other than at the health clinic, no one else in Newtok has running water either. So every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., a school maintenance worker tows students in an aluminum trailer with a four wheeler around the village. They get dropped off at their homes to go inside and poop and pee in five gallon buckets, what many people in rural Alaska call a “honey bucket.”

The students get 20 minutes and then it’s back to class for as many students as the bathroom bus can collect. Some get side tracked and wander back late.

School administrators hope that most of the students will be able to move across the river to Mertarvik, the new village site, this month. But kids on that side of the river are also attending classes in a makeshift school. Construction of a new school in Mertarvik is already underway. It is slated for completion in 2026.

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