School board members showed dismay at the board of education meeting Monday, Nov. 16, when district architect Kevin Walsh projected a September 2022 end date for when portable classrooms could be occupied on school grounds.
The district, which has been contending with parent demands to bring students back to in-person instruction, has been trying to find ways to reconfigure existing school spaces to provide socially distanced in-school learning for more students.
At the beginning of November, Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach confirmed the district was planning to bring grades K-2 back into a full-time in-school learning scenario, which, as of now, is set to begin Nov. 30.
K-2 students have been in a hybrid model like the rest of the grade levels throughout the district. Parents have argued that using modular or portable classrooms could help the district expand in-person learning for more grade levels. In response, the school board invited Walsh, the principal architect for BBS Architects, Landscape Architects & Engineers of Patchogue, to speak at the meeting Monday.
Walsh said the State Education Department (SED) would need to approve any modular classroom construction, which could take up to 11 months if the process started in December and funding was already in place.
To accommodate full-time, in-person instruction for students in grades 3-5, the district would need to build 53 classroom spaces, which could cost upward of $7 million.
Walsh said modular classroom construction is about 70% of the cost of standard construction, which averages $800 per square foot, so modulars could cost the district up to $560 per square foot.
Modular classrooms have all the amenities of normal classrooms and include foundations, electricity, plumbing and fire alarms. Assistant Superintendent for Business Stuart Mattey said a two-classroom portable could be leased for approximately $300,000.
Though Walsh said SED approval could be expedited through a third party review, he still estimated that modular classrooms wouldn’t be available for occupancy until the summer of 2022.
After SED approval, the district will also need to bid out the project, which would also require a review by the state, and after all that is completed, construction and installation could take six to seven months.
A previously approved portable classroom proposal with the SED could help expedite the process, according to Walsh, but the district would still need to get approval for where modular classrooms would be placed on school grounds.
If modular classrooms wouldn’t be available until the September after next, that option is “off the table,” said board member Ron Schulhof. “If it’s really feasible I think this board should be discussing whether we’re going to our elected representatives and talking to them about what SED approval looks like. Because if this is really something that we want to do and it’s going to take six months to get SED-approved, that’s a discussion we may want to have with the state.”
Mattey said the district wasn’t necessarily taking modular classrooms off the table as the estimated timelines were conservative, though he admitted any project the district does takes time to gain approval and to construct.
To have portables ready for the beginning of the next school year, “You would have to cut a year off the timeline,” said board member Carl Finger. “Unless you’re literally going to change completely the way you’re doing that timeline … I don’t know when we could start and have it be of value.”
With nontraditional school spaces already designated for a K-2 return to full-time instruction, elementary schools will be at full capacity. If grades 3-5 were to come back for full-time instruction, students and teachers would need to move into an ancillary space, if 6-foot social distancing requirements were still in place.
District officials have also considered using or leasing other buildings in the area. Mattey said the district had visited the Church of Saint Pius X on Secor Road, which has a number of empty classrooms previously leased by the French-American School.
Mattey said the district would still need SED approval for students to occupy another building, and an architect would need to visit the space to assess the building’s safety systems, determine whether it was ADA compliant, and whether it was well ventilated or had any egress issues. Technological capabilities would also need to be evaluated. Mattey said he wasn’t ready to share how many occupants could fit inside the building’s classrooms with 6-foot social distancing requirements in place.
Rauschenbach said the district was also discussing whether grades 3-5 needed to be brought back all together, or if only third grade could be brought in.
“This is with the assumption that 6-foot social distancing must be maintained,” said Rauschenbach. As the course of the virus changes and vaccines come online, the district will consider how that “impacts health and safety mitigation, and whether it’s through testing [or] whether it’s through [the] relaxation of guidance from the state,” he said they need to determine what factors would “make us more comfortable switching to either a less than 6 foot [distance] and a barrier.”
“Those are pieces that are all in play,” he said.
Efficient use of existing school space within the elementary schools has also been a talking point among parents. Quaker Ridge resident Irin Israel has been leading the charge, sharing a six-minute video on social media that shows how Heathcote, Quaker Ridge and Edgewood classrooms could be configured to accommodate students in all grade levels for in-person instruction.
In contrast, architect Walsh’s presentation to the board of education documented how he calculated occupancy configurations for two classrooms at Heathcote and Edgewood. Each classroom needed to maintain 6 feet of physical distancing between desks, have two means of egress, maintain access to a sink, provide appropriate seating or a zone for teachers, and have students facing in the same direction.
Hallways, corridors and hallway common areas aren’t allowed for instruction. However, gyms, cafeterias and music rooms can be used for general instruction as long as those spaces meet state guidelines.
With 6 feet of physical distancing in place, each individual is given 56 square feet of space. The Heathcote example classroom is 794 square feet, which would mean 14 individuals are allowed in the classroom. Similarly, the Edgewood classroom, which is 785 square feet, also only allows 14 people.
Walsh said the two example classrooms could allow for more occupants depending on the configuration of the desks. The Edgewood classroom, for example, could fit up to 17 occupants if the desks were rearranged. Currently the room holds 13 occupants.
Rauschenbach told the board that after BBS calculated square footage, each school building head custodian visited each classroom in mid-August to calculate desk configurations.
“The head custodians worked in each of the rooms to identify how many could actually fit,” he said.
Rauschenbach couldn’t provide the district’s current percent usage compared to the maximum usage.
“In some classes there are one or two seats that could be added … and in some we have had to actually switch classes because a 24-person upper grade class didn’t fit into the 12-person room that was originally assigned. So we moved them to a bigger room and took a smaller section class and split them in the 12-person room,” he said. “It’s not an even line across all schools, across all grades, but yes, we’ve split the classes appropriately.”
During public comment, Israel said he was “confused” by Walsh’s presentation, which included many of the same numbers Israel had included in his video.
“What worries me is that you can’t have it both ways. If you are just proving my plan, you have inversely proven that there is no way for grades 3-5 to get back into our schools this year barring a complete reconstruction of many parts of our schools or an eradication of COVID or a major change in the policies of New York State, all of which are unlikely,” he said. “The fact is that you have no plan in place based on science, mathematics or concrete metrics for a return to safe, full-time schooling.”