Friday, February 3, 2023

Here’s how schools keep students safe in trailer classrooms, or ‘learning cottages’

As York County, James City County and the City of Williamsburg continue to grow, local school divisions are working to accommodate an ever-increasing number of students.

For some schools, that means adding outdoor temporary classroom trailers while the division secures the funding and approval to build new schools.

Classrooms in outside trailers on school campuses are treated like any regular classroom inside the school for drills, lockdowns and trainings, said representatives for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools and York County School Division.

WJCC Schools use one trailer for education, and York County School Division uses 12 — both school divisions call the trailers “learning cottages.”

And, in the event of an emergency, the divisions have some added precautions in place.

“Schools develop comprehensive safety plans which include emergency drills (fire, tornado, lockdown) throughout the school year, with plans incorporating the learning cottages as any other classroom on a school campus,” said Katherine Goff, York County School Division spokeswoman, in an email

Safety measures

WJCC Schools includes its one trailer at Matthew Whaley Elementary School in its comprehensive safety plan. The door to the trailer is locked all day. The trailer is hooked up to the school’s alarm system, has a fire extinguisher and a phone to call in to the school or 911.

Safety procedures are reviewed with staff at the school at the beginning of the school year and reinforced through drills,” said Eileen Cox, a spokeswoman for WJCC Schools.

In the event of a weather emergency such as tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings, students in WJCC trailers are treated similarly to those participating in activities conducted outside, such as physical education: They are taken inside the main building.

In York County, the school division says it has not received concerns about its learning cottages.

“I believe largely due to the safety measures in place at each school as well as the proactive and open communication in place at each school,” Goff said.

James City County Police spokeswoman Stephanie Williams said local police train to respond to any potential threat and disturbance on campus in any of the schools’ buildings. They have plans in place based on each specific school.

“That being said, trailers would have no impact on James City County Police Department operations or responses; the exception being that specific school plans may have to be modified,” Williams wrote in an email.

Ensuring safety

Questions about the safety of the trailers has popped up periodically in public discussion.

At the Feb. 14 Williamsburg City Council meeting, council members unanimously approved an application for a special use permit that would add a second trailer at Matthew Whaley Elementary School.

One council member asked whether the trailers outdoor location affect lockdown exercises, and whether there was a fence around the area where the trailer would be.

At the meeting, Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn said the trailer’s location will not have an impact on police training and lockdown exercises.

The trailer is intended to be temporary, only in use until July 2022. Matthew Whaley is at 100 percent capacity, as are four other elementary schools in the WJCC division. Jamestown High School is also over capacity.

Capacity

Questions about the safety of trailers were also raised briefly during redistricting discussions in 2017 and 2018, when the capacity of elementary, middle and high schools came up.

Redistricting can be used to mitigate overcapacity issues by moving students from one overpopulated school to a less-populated one.

The alternative is to add trailers to existing schools to handle the extra students while new schools are funded and built.

While trailers can add some learning space in the short-term, some parents had questions about a trailer’s safety in emergency weather and active shooter situations.

On Thursday, Cox said the protocols in place, including the locked doors, phone and regular safety drills, ensure the trailer’s safety.

“Trailers give us that buffer, that cushion area where we can still handle a little bit of growth while we develop a plan to finance, locate and construct those new facilities,” Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling said Feb. 14.

In York County, trailers are also used to address increasing enrollment, Goff said.

“The School Board is committed to learning cottages as temporary solutions to address growth in a school’s student enrollment in order to maintain smaller class sizes in alignment with the division’s Strategic Plan,” Goff said.

Fewer trailers, newer schools

WJCC Schools have included funding for a new elementary school in its FY 2020-2029 Capital Improvement Plan, which will ease overcrowding at the area’s elementary schools.

The Capital Improvement Plan also includes expansion plans for Warhill, Jamestown and Lafayette high schools.

“In the meantime, WJCC Schools is able to currently meet the needs of students within the main building at all elementary schools with the exception of Matthew Whaley Elementary School,” Cox said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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