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Why school portables are a ‘way of life’ in Surrey

THIRD IN A SERIES: A look at concerns surrounding Surrey’s 300-plus portables
Surrey mom and education advocate Cindy Dalglish says her daughter used to come home in tears after being in a portable all day long. (Photo: Amy Reid)

It’s no secret that many schools in the city are bursting at the seams, with an ever-growing number of portables and new schools needed. In our special series, we will examine how growth is affecting students, parents and school staff alike. Today, the series continues with a focus on concerns surrounding the city’s hundreds of portables – and why there’s no end in sight.

Click to read part one, part two and part four.


Despite B.C.’s premier vowing to rid Surrey schools of portables during his election campaign, “portables are going to be a way of life” in this city for many years to come.

That’s according to trustee Terry Allen, who says “everybody has to get their head around that fact.”

“That’s the reality,” he said. “There just simply isn’t enough money and I don’t think there’s enough planning that goes into this. I’ll never see an end of it in my time. But without portables in Surrey, it would be absolutely devastating to the public. You could not educate the kids. If you just said no you can’t, now what do you do?”

Allen – who has long voiced his opposition to the ongoing “portable explosion” in the city – said “we’d be dead in the water” without them.

“The positives of portables is they give us the opportunity to leave neighbourhood kids in neighbourhood schools. If we completely fill the schools and didn’t have the option of portables, that’s what would happen,” he said. “Kids would not be able to go to their neighbourhood school. The positive of portables is it gives you the opportunity to see if the growth is sustainable. You put one or two portables on one school and you see if the kids continue to come. You have time to make sure your figures are right and you can make the request based on that.”

The problem, he said, is when the “saturation” occurs.

READ ALSO: How teens grapple with growth at Surrey’s most crowded high school, June 11, 2019

“When you get to extreme amounts and you simply don’t have enough gym time for every child that they should have and all those facilities in the school, washrooms, playground areas, you put 60, 80 more children in a school, that’s a helluva strain. The cost of that? Then there’s the cost of custodial, teachers and everything that goes with it…. Certainly a high school where you have labs, massive gym classes and band. The strain on the school is huge. The infrastructure then starts to wear faster than it would in a regular school.”

Last September, the district opened the school year with 333 portables. This fall, it expects to open with 360. That includes about 20 that are for “seismic and other needs, including anticipated school space needs later in the school year,” the district says.

Today, roughly 7,500 students are learning in portables – just more than 10 per cent of the roughly 74,000 students in Surrey’s public schools.

READ MORE: ‘Portable explosion’ continues in Surrey, with district predicting $10.7M bill

SEE ALSO: Mould, ventilation issues at Surrey school concern mom of kindergarten student

The negatives of portables are rather obvious and receive much media attention, notably the cost the district faces to purchase, maintain and move them.

That bill has skyrocketed in recent years. The price tag for the 2019-20 school year is expected to jump to $10.7 million – funding which could instead be used to hire roughly 100 teachers. That’s up from an estimated $8.5 million for this school year – which was double the year prior.

Unless the Ministry of Education decides to help with the portable bill, as the Surrey Board of Education has requested, it will once again come out of the district’s operating budget.

During a recent visit to Surrey, the Now-Leader asked Premier John Horgan if he is still committed to ridding the district of portables. He said a 2016 Supreme Court ruling “changed the game here in Surrey and across the province.”

In 2016, the court ruled in favour of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, restoring class-size and class-composition language deleted from the contract in 2002. The decision found the B.C. government acted wrongly when it stripped such limits from teachers’ contracts.

“Had the former government not been fighting the stakeholders in the education system, we may not have had to deal with that in one fell swoop, but after the Supreme Court ruling, we were compelled – the district was compelled – to reduce class size and that meant more portables, not less,” Horgan said.

The premier said when the NDP government made that commitment, “it was on the premise that the former government had made commitments to have this project (Sullivan Elementary) completed, for example. We made our commitment to Surrey based on an expectation that the former government was going to live up to its commitments.”

READ ALSO: ‘Not much has changed’: Why overcrowding in Surrey schools has persisted for decades, June 20, 2019

“Surrey is the fastest-growing district in the province,” Horgan continued, “so our ability to meet a 2015 election campaign commitment is going to be challenging, but we’re going to go at it hard. Again, having a new council and a very, very extraordinary school district, as well as a project office that has a director that they didn’t have before we arrived. I feel comfortable we’re going to make a big dent in that. If we don’t make it, I’ll just have to try harder.”

(File photo)

Heat, water, safety concerns

During last week’s high temperatures, Surrey Teachers Association President Matt Westphal spoke out about dreadful temperatures students and teachers were enduring in the district’s hundreds of portables.

While he said temperatures are an issue inside main school buildings, “portables are particularly bad for this.”

On particularly hot mornings, he said, portables can reach 26 C when students arrive for the day, with temperatures climbing as the day goes on.

“They don’t really have any ventilation, because there are doors on one side and windows on one side,” Westphal said. “They get very hot and stuffy. As for the impact on teachers and students, it can be quite severe. We’ve had lots of people saying they have bad headaches. Students get very listless and irritable. There’s often a spike in behaviour issues.”

Some schools provide fans but some teachers are forced to bring their own, he added.

“I have one colleague, when it’s as hot as it’s been, he brings three shirts because he has to change throughout the day. It’s difficult for any learning to occur.”

Exacerbating the issue, said Westphal, is that the portables aren’t generally plumbed. That means having to trek into a school to fill up water bottles.

Asked if he’s heard from teachers about the heat so far this year, Westphal replied, “have I ever.”

“People are quite angry because this happens every year.”

Surrey School District spokesman Doug Strachan said 11 complaints were received during the record-breaking temperature last Wednesday (June 12).

“Portables, modulars and schools have not had air conditioning and over the decades, there can be some complaints when the few high-temperature days of the year occur, primarily in June,” said Strachan.

Westphal expressed his concerns to the Surrey Board of Education last week, stressing “we need a plan” to resolve these issues.

He said there are other issues with portables, such as not having a sink to use if a teacher wants to use paint as part of an art project.

And, he says some of the portables are not very well maintained.

“In terms of the stairs and railings, sometimes there’s a long delay to get those things. We’ve had cases where portables were moved or newly installed and weren’t fully wired up so there’s no phone. It becomes a safety concern.”

Westphal said portables are also “more prone to mould and mildew” given they’re raised off the ground.

Surrey’s Cindy Dalglish, who ran for school trustee in the 2018 civic election, is another opponent of portables.

“My daughter Zoe was in a portable last year (at Ecole Woodward Hill) and I had to pick her up several times due to the heat. She would come home in tears and if we woke up to another hot day she would ask to stay home,” said Dalglish.

(Surrey mom and education advocate Cindy Dalglish. Photo: Amy Reid)

“The big deal about portables, aside from the lack of washrooms, the boiling hot temperatures in the summer, and freezing temperatures in the winter, is that they are not connected to the atmosphere of the school,” she added.

“Now, teachers do their darndest to ensure connection is made within the social constructs of the school, no doubt. But there is more. When your school is built, it is designed with a certain number of students in mind. The gymnasium is a certain size, the library a certain size, the playground and the fields. Even the number of bathrooms. When we go beyond this capacity, children are moved to staggered play times on the playgrounds, or extended bell schedules have been adopted. The amount of gym time your child receives is less because more students need to cycle through.”

Natasha Royer is another Surrey mom who is against portables. Her daughter was in portables for several years in the Clayton area before Royer decided to move her out of the public school system due to the larger issue of overcrowding.

“I think about the safety of the portables, especially with some of the crime, I remember when she was at Hazelgrove Elementary there was a police incident where the helicopter had to land on the school field,” said Royer. “If there’s a lock-down or any sort of safety issue, these kids are in a portable, that’s a concern. Even if there was a natural disaster.”

“Clayton is a hot spot for criminal activity and we’re seeing an increase with these shootings and schools being on lock down,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 14 years, there’s been at least two incidents where the schools have been on lock down that I have know of.”

Plus, Royer said she felt portables resulted in a lack of a “sense of community.”

But not all parents take issue with portables.

Julia Schellenberg, whose son is in Grade 4 and in one of 15 portables at Katzie Elementary, said portables don’t bother her son, nor does she mind them.

READ ALSO: The struggle for space inside Surrey’s elementary schools, June 13, 2019

“If anything, he’s been sick less this year,” she said. “Maybe it has something to do with less recycled air or less shared bathroom space.”

“I think he’s also come to the realization that the rest of his time at the school, he’ll be in a portable now for good, unless another school is built quickly.”

“I feel his classroom is a bit bigger and more private,” she noted, “with not as much going on, less distractions.”

But Schellenberg said she’s noticed at least one negative aspect of a massive student body, of which portables are a symptom.

“The only downfall I can see is that the kids really don’t develop those close relationships that carry over year to year,” she said.

“I remember I had a core group of friends going through elementary. Then I moved in high school but that can carry on through high school for many kids. With so many classes every year – I think in his kindergarten year there were 12 classes – I don’t know that he’s had very many repeat students over the last five years.”

Ventilation, mould concerns

A mother of a kindergarten student at Mountainview Montessori is alarmed by mould, ventilation and other maintenance issues at the Guildford-area elementary school.

Chelsea Woo said she did “a bit of a case study” on her son’s school Mountainview Montessori (15225 98th Ave.), which consists of portable buildings that the district describes as a “modular complex.”

She said there is no ventilation system in the buildings and there was mould found beneath the kindergarten portables.

Surrey Schools spokesman Doug Strachan said independent consultants did an investigation of mould growth at the school after complaints of a mouldy smell.

“While some cleaning in the crawlspace was recommended and completed, the reports from different times of the year all found air quality was not impacted in the classrooms,” he said. “There has also been drainage improvement work done.”

Board of Education Chair Laurie Larsen said she was shocked to hear about the issues at Mountainview. With the school year ending, Larsen said the district will look at fixing some of the issues.

Strachan said that portables and modulars don’t typically include HVAC systems.

“However, because of the parent’s continuing concern about potential air quality problems, the district is further investigating and will look at ways to increase airflows,” Strachan said.

- Lauren Collins

UP NEXT: We look at how we got here, and what the future holds.