New Palestine High School eyes changes to temporary classrooms

New Palestine High School students direct their attention to their teacher in one of the 18 temporary classrooms set up in the newly built fieldhouse. Students began using the space last week. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

By Kristy Deer | Daily Reporter

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NEW PALESTINE — Sitting in between the rows of desks, a portable speaker has been set up so students can better hear English teacher Caroline Clayton.

Clayton is also using Google Meet, an online conferencing program, so students can follow on their computers to make sure they don’t miss anything Clayton says due to excessive noise.

Still, the quick fixes are not ideal in the 18 temporary classrooms set up inside the newly constructed New Palestine High School fieldhouse. The makeshift rooms are being used for English and math instruction for the next 18 months until work inside the main high school building is completed during the district’s $49 million renovation project.

After holiday break and several weeks of not having high school students in the classrooms due to COVID-19 issues, NPHS students returned to classes last week. About one third of students, around 430 taking English and math, are using the temporary classrooms at any one time, officials said.

Their return was short-lived: On Monday, Jan. 11, Southern Hancock announced the high school, the junior high and the intermediate school will switch to virtual learning effective today (Tuesday, Jan. 12) through the rest of the week.

School administrators received notifications confirming nine positive COVID-19 test results for students at the schools, putting all three at or above the 1% positivity threshold for closing.

The district intends to return the schools to in-person instruction on Tuesday, Jan. 19. There is no school Monday, Jan. 18 due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

That might give school leaders a little time to look at the arrangements with the temporary classrooms, which administrators, educators, parents and students quickly found were not what they had hoped. The rooms, right beside each other, have no ceilings, meaning noise inside the cavernous fieldhouse travels from room to room. Plus, the massive heating and cooling unit in the fieldhouse is constantly running, creating a loud noise and making hearing challenging.

“The classrooms are very loud, and my son reports it is very difficult to hear,” parent Angela Egler said.

On top of the less-than-ideal temporary rooms, officials are also dealing with the pandemic, which hadn’t hit when the administration green-lighted plans for the renovation project.

Unfortunately, with checks cut and plans already progressing, there was no way officials could hold off on the project or avoid moving students into the temporary classrooms.

“The hay is already in the barn, and we have to move forward,” said Wes Anderson, the district’s community relations director.

Anderson acknowledges there are issues that need to be fixed in the fieldhouse but has asked the community to allow leaders time to address the problems.

“This was just the first week,” Anderson said. We’re trying to adjust and get it right and are asking parents to give us a chance to adjust and get things ironed out.”

While Egler and other parents have expressed concerns with the noise issue, Egler’s biggest problem was how district officials refused to immediately rectify what she feels is also a safety issue due to COVID-19.

“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines are clear that 2 meters, or slightly over 6 feet, is the recommended distance between desks,” Egler said. “The high school, and other schools I am sure have made the decision to keep desks 3 feet apart.”

Anderson said the district is at the threshold of school safety for social distancing, the 3 feet, and the temporary rooms are actually much larger than the classrooms being demolished.

“The students and staff are not in danger,” Anderson said. “The students have plenty of space, and the desks are wiped down after each class.”

Official recommendations from the CDC call for reminding students to cover their coughs and sneezes; encourage students to keep 6 feet of space when possible; and to wash their hands with hot water and soap as often as possible.

It’s all little comfort to Egler, who said the staff members tasked with finding a solution are not the ones who are most vulnerable.

“They aren’t sitting within one to two feet of dozens of students,” Egler said.

Parent Angie Fahrnow, who is also a member of the New Palestine Town Council, is also concerned about the temporary setup. She believes students need structure and said the situation in the fieldhouse is not positive, particularly since the classes being taught are core subjects, English and math.

“For kids who have over-stimulation issues, putting them in a loud fieldhouse is not right,” Fahrnow said. “Eighteen months is not temporary. I’m disappointed because they’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this.”

Officials do plan to utilize two empty classrooms inside the main building in which students will be able to take tests, Anderson said. Students who have sensitivity issues because of noise in the fieldhouse will be able to use those classrooms as well, he added.

District officials have also contacted the architects who designed the project to see if they can figure out some ways to add sound baffling.

Anderson also noted that when planning was underway and it was apparent work would have to occur during months school was in session, leaders did discuss using portable classrooms.

“Unfortunately, that idea was just too expensive,” Anderson said.

Plus, they didn’t want students having to go outside in the cold weather or have to heat portable units, not to mention running electricity outside and constructing portable restrooms.

“Fiscally, using the fieldhouse just made more sense,” Anderson said.

Officials also noted if they put ceilings in each of the temporary rooms, each room would have to be heated and cooled separately at a significant cost. That would cut into the project’s budget, meaning other aspects of the renovation — such as the large community room that’s planned for the front of the school — would not happen.

Principal Jim Voelz held a meeting last week with the teachers using the temporary classrooms to get suggestions on how to make the rooms more enjoyable for students and teachers. His experience of leading Doe Creek Middle School during its renovation and his willingness to fix issues is helping teachers and students realize they will get through this, Clayton said.

Clayton, who acknowledges the temporary rooms are not perfect, said education is about adapting and they’ll do just that.

“We will adapt,” Clayton said.

She added the portable speaker to her teaching methods in the fall to accommodate a student who was hard of hearing. Now that she’s teaching in the cavernous fieldhouse and with everyone wearing masks, including Clayton, the speaker has been helpful.

“It’s not that I’m louder, but I’m clearer,” Clayton said.

While she’s still having a problem hearing students, they’re making strides. She also has a large television on which the classroom proceedings are shown, and students can write out questions, which allows her to quickly respond.

“Every day we’re managing it, and I can tell you we will not let kids suffer,” Clayton said. “Every day, we’re tweaking things a little bit more.”

Clayton, like Anderson, feels it’s better to have the students in makeshift classrooms than not in school at all. Plus, even students still being taught inside the main building are having to deal with construction noise near their rooms as the work progresses.

“Everybody is dealing with something during this construction,” Clayton said. “Teachers and parents are all frustrated, but the question is how can we deal with what we have? We will deal with it.”

However, Egler said the issues should have been taken care of sooner.

“Don’t put my student, his peers and his teachers at risk because you aren’t willing to do the hard thing — whatever that is,” Egler said. “Close the school if you have to until it is addressed. Our students and staff deserve better.”