Heat in Surrey school portables prompts concerns

The unseasonably warmer temperatures around Metro Vancouver have raised concerns in some classrooms.

In Surrey, students are increasingly being pushed out of overcrowded main school buildings into portables.

The Surrey Teachers’ Association says it’s been contacted by union representatives at 20 schools in the district related to concerns about the heat in these stand-alone structures.

“They’ve contacted me and I brought it to the district Health and Safety Committee and they have given teachers directions on steps they should take, such as closing blinds and going outside to a shaded area that’s cooler, drinking plenty of water,” explained Gavin Slade-Kerr, the health and safety/grievance officer for the association.

However, he says in many cases, teachers don’t have the option to find a cooler space. Slade-Kerr notes temperatures inside portable classrooms are rising beyond the 30-degree mark, with educators reporting the effects.

“Headaches, nausea, affecting their mood, they’re getting quite irritable, and the students as well. When you have the teachers and the students overheating, and they’re having more trouble interacting, everybody’s more on edge,” Slade-Kerr said.

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He tells CityNews teachers are also worried about the wellbeing of their students, with many passing those concerns on to the district.

“And the district’s response has been, they’re meeting the WorkSafe requirements and class activity should continue,” he said. “We have many, many portables in Surrey so this will continue to be a problem.”

Gary Tymoschuk, the vice-chair of the Surrey Board of Education, says he’s received no formal complaints about heat concerns in portables.

“We will address concerns that any of our teaching staff have with regard to uncomfortable heat in classrooms, portables or otherwise, as soon as we’re made aware. I’d certainly urge any teachers or the Surrey Teachers’ Association to contact the site principle as the first stop and go from there. To the greatest extent possible, resources and everything else, we’ll do what we can,” he explained to CityNews.

Climate change worries

He admits the issue with temperatures in portables is nothing new — adding it’s been a problem that’s been raised over “many months and years.”

“It’s not easy to get the portables cool. There’s a flat roof and there’s four walls and sun beating down on it all day is going to make sure it gets hot inside. It’s just one of the many reasons why we need to get more schools in place as soon as possible,” he said.

Tymoschuk says families and guardians can help keep their kids comfortable by ensuring children aren’t overdressed for the weather and by making sure they have a water bottle to keep hydrated.

While school was out in Surrey during the heatdome of 2021, Slade-Kerr notes some districts were still in class. He points to the hundreds of deaths the extreme temperatures caused across the province, saying they only add to his growing worries about climate change.

“I’m quite concerned that, given global warming, that we’re going to see more days like that, and more and more of those days and that our teachers are in an unsafe situation potentially,” he told CityNews.

Slade-Kerr is calling for the Surrey school district to be more proactive in ensuring teachers and staff have access to things like fans, adding it shouldn’t be up to the educators themselves to make sure they have this kind of equipment.

However, Tymoschuk tells CityNews the board is actively looking at ways to make conditions more comfortable for students and staff.

“That is purchasing and placing fans inside wherever it’s required and making sure students and staff have appropriate water breaks. And if anybody is feeling exceptionally hot and/or faint, those types of things, we’ll make sure that they’re comforted to the greatest degree possible,” he explained.

Surrey ‘school infrastructure crisis’

On Monday, Surrey city council declared a “state of school infrastructure crisis,” after B.C.’s largest school district warned it may have to bring in double-decker portables if it doesn’t get more money from the province.

“The state of school infrastructure in Surrey has reached a crisis level,” Mayor Brenda Locke said at the time. “It’s shocking to hear that by September 2024, we may have nearly 400 portables across our city. I know the Board of Education has continually advocated for funding from the Province, but we’re not seeing the action that our community so desperately needs. We know that without rapid investment, our schools are facing a dire situation. We need action and investment in building more schools in Surrey now.”

Locke doubled down on her comments Wednesday, saying the city was in dire need of more schools.

The mayor’s office has said there were more than 2,200 new students in September, with more added each year.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, Gavin Slade-Kerr was quoted as saying “our teachers are in an unsafe situation intentionally.” This was a transcription error and he actually said “our teachers are in an unsafe situation potentially.”

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