This week, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast, Richmond Public Schools at last replied to Richmond magazine’s request for information on the district’s plans for evacuating its classroom trailers in case of tornado warnings.
“We do not have information about how many of our special education students are educated in our trailers,” said Richmond Public Schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby in a September interview prior to the initial request for information.
Since then, Cosby reaffirmed in a subsequent interview that the district had no data available related to how many of its classroom trailers were used for special-needs classrooms.
But in January of this year, responding to a separate Freedom of Information Act request, this one by former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf, the district was able to provide full accounting of all of its trailers, as well as what kind of classes each of those trailers was used for. A disproportionately high number — at least nine of a total of 35 trailers in use — are used to house special-needs students exclusively.
Nearly all of the district’s classroom trailers house elementary students, and six of those are used for early childhood education classes.
Though both Chesterfield and Henrico have more trailers than Richmond overall, neither relies so heavily on classroom trailers for students with special needs, many of whom have mobility or cognitive issues that make evacuating a class under emergency conditions more complex than it would be with other students.
According to Richmond schools officials, some of its classroom trailers are more than 20 years old. During a School Board meeting earlier this year, 2nd District School Board member Kimberly Gray suggested that the district should do away with its classroom trailers, basing her suggestion primarily on the district’s declining number of students; she cited the school system’s redistricting process and its proposed closure of four elementary schools due to low enrollment. Schools administration officials told Gray that closing the trailers would be impossible, noting among their reasons that some of those structures were so old they would not survive transport.
Meanwhile, the district’s tornado-evacuation provisions, provided to Richmond magazine by the district, provide minimal details for evacuating students from trailers, saying that during tornado warnings, schools are to “implement evacuation from outside portable buildings to a sheltered position inside the school.”
Cosby said the district’s more detailed plans rely on circumstances. “Really, it depends on the emergency,” she said. “For a tornado, it is encouraged if we have enough warning that we bring students into the main building, but for something like an earthquake, the recommendation is that kids hunker down in the trailer.”
The state conducts an annual, statewide tornado drill for all schools in March, but Cosby told Richmond magazine in September that more than a dozen of its schools had conducted drills “within the month.”
And if the emergency doesn’t afford time to evacuate the trailers for the safety of the stronger structure?
“If there’s not enough warning, the protocol is you have to have your backs against the walls, stay away from windows if possible,” Cosby said.
The district’s plan makes no provisions specific to evacuating students with disabilities who are housed in trailers.