British Columbia

School officials order windows screwed shut after teachers opened them to increase ventilation

Teachers at a school in Abbotsford, B.C., started opening classroom windows after learning in December that there was no ventilation system in an older wing of the school. But many of the windows were later screwed shut, with school officials citing safety issues.

Abbotsford teachers say fresh air was compensating for lack of ventilation system in older wing of school

Godson Elementary School in Abbotsford, B.C., houses kindergarten to Grade 5 students. (Yvette Brend/CBC )

Officials at a school in Abbotsford, B.C., had windows in the building either screwed shut or blocked from opening wider than a few inches after teachers began using them to compensate for poor ventilation, says the Abbotsford Teachers' Union.

Teachers at Godson Elementary School had assumed a proper ventilation system was installed throughout the entire school — to maintain airflow and reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission — but they were shocked to learn in December that this wasn't the case in an older wing of the building.

After teachers began opening windows wide to increase airflow in the affected classrooms — despite cold temperatures outside — the school district responded by sending contractors to fix the issue.

The district says those contractors found safety issues with the windows and partially sealed them.

This window in an older wing of Godson Elementary School was recently screwed shut. Teachers had been opening the windows after learning there was no ventilation system in that part of the building. (Submitted by Abbotsford Teachers' Union)

The move has outraged the B.C. Teachers' Federation, which says ventilation problems are widespread in schools across the province, making school staff anxious about the heightened risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

On Feb. 14, health officials ordered one division at Godson elementary to self-isolate because of COVID exposure.

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The district says the order was given out of "an abundance of caution, not because of school-based transmission."

The teachers' union president says the class is housed in the older wing. In addition, a teacher who worked in the older wing has contracted COVID-19.

"Anxiety is high," said Jennifer Brooks, president of the Abbotsford Teachers' Union.

The wing with no ventilation system houses some 200 students and staff in 18 rooms. 

"To start by screwing the windows closed — was instantly a large stress," said Brooks.

"It was a great surprise to the staff. The day that it happened the teachers were very upset."

Some of the windows at Godson elementary were screwed shut or stopped with wooden blocks so they'd only open a few inches. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

She said the district supplied small air purifiers to process classroom air, but described it as "Band Aid" solution. 

According to Ministry of Health guidelines, B.C. schools are required to ensure heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are in good condition. The ministry wants school air systems upgraded with MERV-13 filters, which can filter out bacteria and viruses.

But many schools fail to meet those standards, with older buildings and portables often having no HVAC system, according to the BCTF. 

The Ministry of Education said in an email to CBC News that it will be reviewing district HVAC data in the coming weeks. 

Public schools have budgeted almost $10 million in 2021 to upgrade HVAC systems. To date, the Education Ministry says 41 districts have upgraded HVAC systems to increase air exchange, while 24 districts have upgraded to MERV-13 filters.

In Abbotsford, the school district told CBC that air quality test results from Godson elementary revealed no "unusual conditions."

"After becoming aware of staff concerns around air quality in the building, our school district conducted an air quality assessment through EPOCH Environmental Ltd. We received the air quality test results [on Feb. 18], which confirmed that no unusual conditions were evident."

One class from Godson elementary is self-isolating after a COVID-19 exposure in an older wing of the school. (Yvette Brend/CBC News Vancouver)

The district said the use of windows to circulate fresh air was found to be a "potential safety hazard during opening and closing functions on some of the windows."

So in January, contractors "repaired" the issue and sealed older windows for safety.

"These rooms still have access to natural ventilation through upper windows that open up to four inches and provide additional airflow throughout classrooms and the building," according to the district email.

It is unclear from the district response if there is any plan to fix the issues in the older wing — but the district confirmed that Godson's filtration system meets the MERV-13 standard. 

Brooks was told by school officials the gaping windows also strained the boiler, which heats the school.

"Teachers did what they could," said Brooks. "We need to feel safe."

She wants the windows reopened until a better solution is found.

In January, a work crew visited Godson elementary to screw some windows closed, and to install wooden blocks on others. (Submitted by Abbotsford Teachers' Union)

"The air exchange and ventilation in these rooms I think needs to be addressed urgently before we end up with more [COVID-19] variants or more isolations and exposures," said Brooks.

So far, relevant provincial ministries have offered no comment.

But Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, says the situation at Godson elementary is just one example of an issue that's long plagued schools in this province, now highlighted by the pandemic.

In some cases, she said parents have paid for portable ventilation for classrooms, while other students are dressing for frigid temperatures in class, if teachers choose to open windows.

"We have ... children wearing toques and coats in the classrooms and that should not be," said Mooring.

"Teachers are heavily reliant on opening windows. It's sad."

As for how concerns were handled at Godson elementary, Mooring called it a "huge problem."

And she is calling on provincial health officials to be more open about in-school transmissions. She says the lack of public data is part of what's driving anxiety.

B.C. schools are required to ensure heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are in good condition, according to Ministry of Health guidelines. (Yvette Brend/CBC News)


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip?