Why school portables may not be cheaper in the long run

Our series with EarthFix on portable classrooms called Inside the Box is featured on CBC’s Early’s Edition. Take a listen as Executive Director Robert McClure chats with host Rick Cluff and tells about the major health concerns associated with aging portables like air quality and the impact it has on learning outcomes.  

School Districts Explore Solutions For Excessive Portable Classroom Use

Third-grade teacher Nancy Avery helps her class during reading time. Avery taught in a portable classroom for 27 years. This is her first year inside a brick-and-mortar building at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane, Washington. Photo: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

SPOKANE, Wash. — Teachers at Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary don’t have to look far to know what they left behind.

The school’s old portable classrooms sit just a block away from their brand new building. It was in those portables where for nearly 30 years, Nancy Avery made the choice between fresh air and listening to her students, when she’d routinely switch off the noisy ventilation system that drowned out their voices.

It was in the school’s 14 portables where students and teachers were sick far too often, she said. Several teachers contracted skin reactions, she said, that have dissipated since the move to the new building.

No longer does Avery worry about water leaks and ceiling stains. No more will the hot, stuffy box lull her students during standardized testing.

But most of all, there’s no more smell. That’s what she and the others notice most.

“Those portable classrooms don’t have a masonry foundation at all, so you just have dirt underneath — so it smells a lot better in this new building,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Mary-Dean Wooley said. “That moldy, earthy smell is absent completely.”

In September, Jefferson Elementary’s new $25-million campus eliminated the need for portables. Built with enough space to accommodate future enrollment growth, Wooley said the school shouldn’t need them any time soon.

States Put No Limits On Use Of Portable Classrooms

Workers at Blazer Industries push a half-built portable classroom out the door of the modular building manufacturing plant in Aumsville, Oregon. Photo: Cassandra Profita/EarthFix

AUMSVILLE, Ore. – After affixing the roof to the walls, five workers push a half-built classroom out the door of the Blazer Industries manufacturing plant. Clearly, this is a portable classroom.

It’s one of about 130 portables Blazer has been contracted to build this year. Most will go to overcrowded schools in Washington state, and most will be built in four to seven days. Inside this warehouse, the company has built entire schools, churches, hospitals and high-end homes — one truckable piece at a time.

Blazer’s customers can choose what kind of buildings they want. They can order upgraded heating and ventilation systems and non-toxic building materials to improve the indoor air quality and reduce health risks, company engineer Rock Shetler said. But those options cost a lot more.

“The biggest thing with classrooms is really the budget of the school districts,” he said. “When the budget only allows the cheapest materials and the cheapest products, that’s really what it comes down to.”

The state of Washington says the cheapest materials aren’t good enough for new schools. It requires new school buildings to meet a long list of environmental conditions to qualify for state construction funds under the Sustainable School Protocol.

“Merely complying with minimum codes during design and installation will not ensure good indoor air quality,” the state says in the protocol.

But those rules don’t apply to portable classrooms. For portables, Washington offers recommendations, not requirements.