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Newark water emergency prompts district to cancel summer school for thousands of students

Aerial photo of the Pulaski Skyway bridge connecting Newark and Jersey City at sunset. The photo captures the bridge and surrounding buildings as the sunset is reflecting off of the Hackensack river.

Residents throughout Newark were experiencing little to no water in their homes on Tuesday due to a water main break that also caused the district to cancel summer school programs.

Nisian Hughes / Getty Images

The Newark Board of Education canceled summer school Tuesday because of a “city-wide water emergency” stemming from a major water main break at Branch Brook Park, near the city’s border with Belleville.

Residents and establishments throughout Newark and parts of neighboring Belleville, Bloomfield, and Nutley — which all get water from the Newark water supply line — were experiencing low water pressure, discolored water, or had no running water, town officials said.

City health officials advised all residents to boil water before using it.

The summer school cancellation forced thousands of students enrolled in summer school and extended school year programs to stay home on another day of extreme heat.

At the start of summer programming in July, the district said 20,000 Newark students were enrolled in one or more activities. It was unclear how many students were still participating in programs, including extended school year which runs through Aug. 12 for students with a range of special needs.

Around 4,000 Newark students were signed up for mandatory summer school, Superintendent Roger León said at a school board meeting in May.

District officials did not immediately respond to questions.

The city had already activated a “code red” for Tuesday, as temperatures hit the mid-90s that morning and the heat index was expected to reach 101 degrees later that day.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a statewide drought watch that day due to persistent low rainfall this summer on top of record-high temperatures that “continue to stress water supplies throughout the state.”

Families in the North, West, Central, and South wards were all affected by the main break on Clinton and Mill streets in Belleville, Newark city officials said in a statement.

Jasmin Lee Phillips, a resident in the city’s Central Ward, still has water in her home but said the water pressure has been low since early Tuesday morning. Her son Elijah, an autistic 14-year-old, attends the Nassan’s Place summer camp held at George Washington Carver Elementary School, which was also canceled due to the city emergency. 

Some residents had their water fully restored on Tuesday, Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement. However, he did not say how many residents were still without water or provide an estimated time for full restoration.

“Crews are on the scene trying to abate the issue,” posted Council President LaMonica McIver on her Facebook page.

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham said the township’s fire department was working to pump water to Clara Maass Medical Center, which is less than 2 miles from the main break and serves residents from the area.

University Hospital, another hospital near the water supply line, implemented an emergency water conservation plan, canceling clinic visits and elective procedures for the day with limited bottled waters for patients and visitors.

Melham posted a video on Facebook from the scene Tuesday morning which showed water flooding Branch Brook Park Drive, where a river runs parallel.

Newark city officials said in a statement they would be going door-to-door to give out water.

City officials also said residents experiencing a water emergency should call the city’s Division of Water Supply at 973-733-3654. But the influx of calls caused that number to give a busy signal throughout the day.

Some charter schools, including KIPP Newark schools, had professional development sessions scheduled for teachers on Tuesday as they prepare for the new school year starting next week. The schools pivoted to virtual sessions for the day, KIPP NJ spokeswoman Jessica Shearer said in an email.

Many residents took to social media to share their experiences with the water outage during another hot day. 

Some commented on the city’s Facebook updates about their elderly parents who were in need of water. Others said that bottled water delivered by city representatives to multi-family households was not sufficient.  One woman said she was in need of clean water to make her baby’s formula.

And some residents were able to find a way to cope with the water emergency. Lee Phillips said she and other parents in her son’s summer camp decided to treat their kids to an outing instead of staying home.

“I had to tell my son summer camp was canceled, he was like, ‘but why?’ “ Lee Phillips said. “But then one of the other parents say ‘hey, what about we take the kids to Chuck E. Cheese?’ So, that’s the plan.”

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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