By Pam Susi

Lack of funding for school construction and repair combined with past growth in school enrollment has resulted in an overreliance on leased or owned temporary classrooms in New Jersey, including actual buildings such as former parochial schools and re-locatable temporary classroom units (TCUs). School districts tend to purchase the least expensive, low-bid TCUs and keep them no matter how old.

Local associations should insist that the same standards be applied to temporary classrooms as to any other school facility and that TCUs be truly temporary. The law is on the side of locals because the state defines a temporary classroom as a “facility for educating students on a temporary basis while awaiting completion of a school-facilities project that will permanently hold students” and prescribes a complaint mechanism for resolving problems.

Passaic City shows what is possible

The best way to deal with temporary classrooms and the problems that go with them is to eliminate them. For example, this summer the New Jersey School Development Authority (SDA) began the procurement process for construction of the Dayton Avenue Educational Complex in Passaic City, which will eliminate 33 temporary classrooms dating from 2001.

As the Christie administration ends, a new administration can provide a fresh opportunity for locals to take inventory of temporary classrooms and insist that districts replace them with healthier and updated alternatives.

The problems

A large study conducted in California found the most common problems in portable classrooms to be:

• Insufficient outdoor air supply into the classroom.

• Uncomfortable temperature and humidity levels.

• High noise levels from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and street noise.

• High airborne formaldehyde levels from building materials and furnishings.

• Moisture and mold.

• Toxic dust residue including lead, arsenic and pesticides.

• Poor lighting.

The solutions

Best practices are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California’s Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) that provide guidelines on how to provide safe and healthful temporary classrooms.  Preventing hazards requires action be taken throughout the life cycle of a temporary classroom, including commissioning, operation and maintenance, and evaluation and replacement.

Commissioning: 

• When specifying portables for lease or purchase, districts should follow the guidelines given by EPA and California’s CHPS.

• Specify low VOC (volatile organic compound) emitting compound building materials be used. 

• Ensure the HVAC can provide a minimum of 450 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of outside air and that it can heat or cool this volume of air (based on 30 occupants and 15 cfm/occupant).

• Locate air intakes so that they draw from the best quality outdoor air—not underneath the unit or near automobile or other exhaust.

• Cover entries and provide waterproof entry mats to minimize tracking in dust and water.

• Design the TCU acoustically to achieve a “best practice” guideline of 45 decibels in the classroom.

• Situate the TCU away from noise sources such as highways and pollution sources such as parking areas.

• Orient the TCU to maximize the benefits of daylight coming in windows.

• Install proper grading and drainage.

• Specify operable windows.

Operations and maintenance:

• “Flush out” the TCU using outdoor air for several days before being used.

• Outdoor air should be supplied continuously while the trailer is occupied by setting thermostat fan settings to “on” or “continuous” mode.

• HVAC filters should have a rating between 35 percent and 80 percent or minimum efficiency rating value (MERV) between 8 and 13.

• Regularly inspect roofs, ceilings, walls, floors, and carpets.  Special attention should be given to evidence of water leakage or stains, mold growth or odor. Water-damaged materials should be removed and leaks promptly fixed.

Evaluation and replacement:

• Portables and mobile units should not be used beyond the recommended life of the unit, never more than 20 years, assuming excellent maintenance.

Local association action plan

Locals should insist that districts comply with New Jersey regulations [N.J.A.C. 6A:26-8.1(c)] on temporary school facilities for health and safety related concerns including ventilation, lighting, control of moisture, peeling paint and hazardous materials on floors, walls and ceilings.  Local associations should work with their UniServ field representatives to:

• Take an inventory of the portable classrooms in the district and survey affected teachers about the conditions in them.

• Make sure maintenance and teaching staff receive written instructions on how to correctly set ventilation and thermostat controls in portables.

• Call their county superintendents of schools with complaints and follow up with an email both to the superintendent and to Caitlin Pletcher (Caitlin.Pletcher@doe.state.nj.us) at the New Jersey Department of Education program, which oversees the superintendents. A list of county superintendents is available online at nj.gov/education/counties. 

Pam Susi holds a master of science in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a certified industrial hygienist.  She is a consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns. She may be reached at pam_susi@comcast.net.

For more information:

Environmental Health

Conditions in California’s Portable Classrooms, 2004. bit.ly/portableclassroomca

Best Practices Manual, Chapter VI: High Performance Relocatable Classrooms, Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), 2009 Edition with 2016 draft update. bit.ly/chpsrelocatable

Designing and Constructing Portable Classrooms for a Healthy School Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. bit.ly/epaportableclassroom

New Jersey Administrative Code 6A:26, Subchapter 8, Temporary School Facilities, pages 134 to 141. bit.ly/chap26njac

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