Edmonton school divisions take steps to upgrade ventilation as students return

Edmonton’s two largest school divisions are making moves to upgrade their ventilation systems in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Staff absences a concern for Catholic and public schools

Teacher Elisa Infusini and her Grade 1 students wear masks as they attend class at Honore Mercier elementary school on March 9, 2021, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Edmonton's two largest school divisions are making moves to upgrade their ventilation systems in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

It comes as students are expected to return to in-person class on Monday and the highly-infectious Omicron variant brings Alberta's case counts to all-time highs.

On Dec. 1, the two Alberta chapters of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers released guidance recommending schools ensure ventilation systems use filters with minimum efficiency reporting values (MERV) of 13 or higher.

The typical home furnace has a MERV rating of around 10.

Edmonton Catholic schools are now in the process of installing MERV-13 systems.

"The advantage is to make our sites as safe as possible for every student and staff member in our buildings," Robert Martin, chief superintendent, said during a news conference Friday.

It's expected to take a few weeks, he said, as the filter systems are installed in the division's 96 schools and other buildings.

"We have gone above and beyond," Martin said. 

The MERV-13 filter costs will come from school reserves, he said.

Edmonton Public Schools is looking at a number of options for its 212 schools, according to a letter from the superintendent. Experts were in schools for a preliminary assessment over the holiday break.

The division has also issued a request for vendor proposals for additional room air purifiers. 

Provincial guidance

Alberta Education directs that ventilation be maintained but has not released guidance on upgrading those systems. 

Asked Wednesday about improving air quality in schools, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange referenced $250 million in federal funding for COVID-19 costs distributed by the province in 2020 — around $44 million of which was spent on upgrades to systems impacting air quality, according to a spokesperson.

"School authorities have made this their top priority and they continue to work on further refinements if necessary," she said Wednesday.

In October, Edmonton public's previous board sent a letter to the province asking for ventilation standards and resources. In a letter dated Thursday, the board indicated it was still waiting for a response.

Edmonton Public Schools is asking the province for a number of items including metrics on when to move online and to look into providing N95 masks for students and staff.

The government has promised to distribute 16.5 million medical-grade masks and 8.6 rapid antigen tests to schools with initial shipments arriving by the end of next week.

Staffing strain

Both school divisions have also expressed concern about the effect the Omicron variant will have on staffing.

Edmonton Catholic Schools has logged 71 teacher absences for the first day of the semester but expects that to rise to around 200 by Monday.

Edmonton public schools saw 151 teacher unfilled jobs throughout December — more than double the previous month.

"Our concern is are we going to actually have supplied teachers and supply EAS who are able and healthy enough to take these positions," board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Thursday.

"We are going to see staff shortages in our schools."