Students, staff uneasy in trailers
School libraries have been turned into classrooms. So have auditoriums and staff offices. After squeezing even the closets into learning space, Indian River School District is once again using modular outdoor classrooms — trailers — for elementary and high school students.
It’s not just that overcrowding is inconvenient. Now, the students and staff are legitimately concerned for their safety and quality of education.
Just north of Millsboro, Sussex Central High School installed six trailers just behind the main building. The 10 outdoor classrooms are mostly social studies — plus health, driver education and French language (subjects that don’t require specialized lab equipment or machinery).
Their new normal: distracting, miserable
“I know the students don’t like being out there … kids’ll come in soaking wet … they come in and shake everything off, and you can tell they’re just miserable,” said Don Megee, driver education teacher. “And they’re tiny classrooms, and we’re trying to pack 25 to 30 kids in them. We’re making due, but it’s not easy. But you’ll never hear us complain — unless you ask.”
Students aren’t always prepared for sudden rainfalls or snow.
“That’s just part of it I guess. We have to get wet, we have to be cold,” said senior Regan Carey. “It’s just kind of how we have to do it.”
“In the very first week of school, we had a tropical storm move through,” said Principal Bradley Layfield.
Now, during winter, “I do not remember a flu season that has hit us as hard, with both staff and students,” Layfield added. “By the end of last week, we were over 50 cases with kids and cracked double digits with staff.”
“This is the worst flu I’ve ever seen, and it’s probably because we’re several hundred students over capacity … It’s really gross,” said Jordan Marvel, social studies teacher.
That means kids missing lessons close to mid-terms, teachers missing work and parents dealing with home care.
“Our students and staff are in close contact throughout the school day, and the flu spreads rapidly,” the school district announced in an automated phone call that encouraged students with symptoms to stay home.
There are no outdoor bathrooms or running water, so it’s a long walk for custodians carrying mop buckets, teachers needing the facility or students with an emergency.
“It’s a lot of little extra things that add up,” Marvel said.
Custodians have more work because mud is tracked into all buildings. Traffic jams are worse than ever in the hallway approaching the trailer entrance. (Lockers have been removed to add a few more feet of walking space.)
The trailers are a popular shelter for wintertime critters (“We’re definitely going through more mousetraps,” Layfield said).
Communications barely worked during the first weeks of September: Over 200 people couldn’t hear the intercom, the morning announcements or pledge of allegiance. Due to the wiring, the ringing bell will sometimes cause teachers’ computers to freeze, which wastes time for a full reboot.
Plus, there’s the isolation. Even administrators sometimes forget the trailers are out there.
“I try not to make them feel isolated … It’s just not as convenient as stopping by the classrooms,” said Layfield said, who tries to visit one outdoor classroom daily. “Besides seeing whoever else is their trailer mate, they don’t see too much of anybody.”
For outdoor teachers, everything is indoors: the bathrooms, the printer, their colleagues. They always carry a building key, and the long walk eats into both sides of their planning period. New sidewalks were laid, but plenty of people still wind up passing through the dirt.
The thin trailer walls prove distracting, since people can hear noise and chatter in the neighboring classroom.
“I’ve learned a lot. I can hear everything he says,” Megee said of his neighboring social studies teacher. “You learn to deal with it.”
It’s not all doom and gloom. And students regularly go outdoors gym class, marching band, JROTC, agriculture or work-study. But the 2004 building can no longer hold the growing population, and modulars were not the intended learning environment.
“What can I say? It’s a pain,” Megee said. “We’ll make due, we always do.”
Ultimately, everyone interviewed for this story could name only a few positives: sometimes the weather is nice for walking, and sometimes the seclusion is peaceful.
“We can adjust our own heat and air conditioning,” Megee added. “Nobody wants to go out there, … so we don’t get the interruptions you would get in the building. But I’d give that up to be back in the building. In a heartbeat.”
“There’s not many positives,” said senior Tarron Coursey.
Trailers are symptom of overcrowding
Over 1,800 teens (and over 20 teachers without a permanent classroom) have about five minutes to change classes in a building meant for 1,500.
“The school is already overcrowded,” Coursey said. “It’s a lot harder to move though a school when there’s too many people in it at one time,” including teachers with carts, people on crutches or people needing wheelchairs.
If there was an emergency, an intruder or fire, “There’s no way for us to get through efficiently because there’s so many people from wall to wall at one time,” Coursey added.
There’s a good 500-plus students at a time in the cafeteria … and some people don’t even get to eat until the last five minutes,” because of the long lines, Coursey said.
“Starting and ending class on time has been a bigger problem than I’ve ever had,” Marvel said.
Three years ago, Carey remembered teachers demanding a hall pass if anyone was just a minute late. Now, she believes teachers are much more lenient: “It’s no one’s fault that they can’t get themselves through the hallway.”
In fact, teachers on carts are also stuck in traffic, and “We’re missing instructional time because they can’t get to class along with everybody else,” Coursey said.
Driver education students are losing valuable practice time because of the long walk to the car. The configuration also means driver ed teachers can no longer partner on lecture-style classes.
“I’m afraid our failure rate might be a little higher than it could be … just a little,” Megee said.
They’re also tired of people in the community suggesting that this overcrowding is normal.
“I think it’s personally a struggle for anyone that comes to this school, whether it’s an employee or a student,” Carey said. “I think until you actually walk through the hallways of Sussex Central [during class change] you just won’t ever know what it’s like.”
Students do appreciate recent efforts toward school safety, but they’re uncomfortable leaving their brick building for a thinner, temporary structure.
“Besides us, more students have voiced that they don’t necessarily feel as safe as they should in their own school,” Carey said.
These teenagers have grown up with school shootings regularly in the national news. They don’t harp on it, but Sussex Central students and teachers wonder if they will be next.
“We have to be in the position where we’re in danger if somebody does happen to intrude the school premises,” Carey said. “I feel ten times more comfortable when I am physically in this building because you have to walk through the office … doors that are closed, we have our school resource officers, trained employees that know how to [react] if an intruder entered the building.”
The district recently installed $26,000 chain-link fence, using a safety grant. It creates more of a campus feel and provides more safety and security for other outdoor activities. But it’s a constant reminder of potential danger.
“They put that fence up for a reason,” Megee said. “When I first started teaching, you never would have thought of anything like that, but ever since Columbine and so many since then — our walls are thin. There is no protection out there … There’s no way you can hide. … The fence is nice, but someone that serious, the fence will stop them for three seconds, that’s it.”
“Some people feel safer, I feel a little trapped. School shootings and violence are my mind,” Marvel said. “Is today the day that my school’s on the news? Is today the day I have to make a decision — do I have to jump in front of a bullet for my kids? … And other teachers might not think about it as much as me, but I’m outside in a trailer that is not bulletproof.”
Teachers don’t want to stress their students by sharing such fears. But students are thinking the same thing. They don’t want to be fenced-in during an emergency.
When designing the fence, “We went with a larger area … to avoid the risk of having students/staff corralled in a small area,” Layfield said. “Now, in case of an internal threat, there is ample to room to execute the ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ method we train for in case of a lockdown or active shooter within the building. Moreover, all the security personnel, administrative staff, custodians and several teachers from the trailers and B wing are equipped with keys.”
There was also some dispute as to whether the trailer locks all work as securely or as smoothly as they should.
Elementary students outside
Over at North Georgetown Elementary School, the 10-year-olds are outside. Although NG had an easier transition for their one trailer, the two fifth-grade classrooms still weren’t ready on Day One. The staff reconfigured their entire schedule for the first week or so.
At 930 students, the elementary school exceeded 100 percent enrollment capacity this year.
Since the school year is exactly halfway done, people are falling into a routine. But it’s still tough for teachers to be separated from their indoor teammates.
She said it’s crucial for the public referendum to pass.
“The growth that we have in our community, we’re really starting to feel in our schools,” said Sarah Green, acting principal at North Georgetown Elementary School. “We have to provide our students with instructional space, and now it’s come down to everyone getting creative.”
Each year, the district is losing more special spaces in order to provide regular education.
“We’re utilizing all spaces … we’ve cleaned out closets and tried to use those for small group instruction,” Green said. “That’s similar across the board in [all] our buildings.”
Selbyville Middle School might have had trailers already too, except that they reduced the library to keep all students indoors. But that’s just a temporary fix for a school at about 110 percent capacity. And when the public twice rejected the 2019 referendum (which included an SMS expansion), the state removed SMS from eligible projects this year.
“Teachers are always going to make the best of whatever situation they’re given,” Marvel said from the little porch of his trailer. “Schools are the basis of your local community: the better the school, the better the community.”
The public can vote on Feb. 13
Delaware public schools are required to educate every child who lives in the geographic area, regardless of building size. But what happens when the population doesn’t stop growing? District administrators have been trying to avoid modular classrooms since 2006, when district-wide renovations removed the last few trailers from the former Sussex Central Middle School. But trailers have appeared inevitable. Even if the public passes the Feb. 13 referendum, construction would take several years.
Portable outdoor classrooms are a symptom of rising student populations. Across the county, including Selbyville, Millville, Millsboro and Georgetown, there are even more apartment complexes and work-force housing in the works.
All of the northern schools that feed into SCHS are at capacity, or nearly there. Rather than expand each one, the district wants to just build one school and shuffle everyone else around. It’s the cheapest long-term option.
“This is a relatively new school and it’s in good shape … but the square footage is the issue,” Layfield said.
Trailers were a major investment. The district budgeted over $400,000 to lease and outfit the first round of trailers. A fraction of this budget comes from state funding, but over 90 percent is local dollars. They expect to need more portables in the near future, too, but that doesn’t help with overcrowding in the common areas: cafeteria, hallways, auditorium.
If the public does not pass the Feb. 13 referendum, students will be housed in portable classrooms indefinitely.
A special election will be held on Thursday, Feb. 13 (weather date of Feb. 20), in which residents of IRSD vote for or against authorizing the school district to issue $58.4 million worth of bonds for major capital improvements. The loans would be repaid through a temporary increase in property taxes, which funds the local share (40 percent) of construction of a new Sussex Central High School on district-owned property next to the existing school.
This plan would alleviate capacity issues at five additional schools. The new building would hold more students. The old SCHS building would house Millsboro Middle School. The old middle school would become an additional elementary school. All of this creates room for Georgetown students to shift into the Millsboro schools.
IRSD had 11,165 students as of mid-January. The north is going to have redistricting one way or another. But if residents don’t pass the referendum, then redistricting will push into the south.
Any district residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote at their choice of six locations. Absentee voting is available at the Department of Elections in Georgetown. For details and paperwork, call (302) 856-5367 or visit https://electionssc.delaware.gov/school_absentee.shtml.
For more information, contact the IRSD Referendum Hotline at (302) 436-1079 or visit irsd.net/referendum.
By Laura Walter