Quebec father says daughter freezing as school leaves windows open

The Quebec government has recommended better airflow in classrooms and has offered air exchanges to schools. But it's not clear how many have been installed and many teachers are having to open windows, despite bitterly cold weather in the province.

Fresh air meant to reduce COVID-19 risk also means cold classrooms

Quebec schools reopened Jan. 17, although a snow day meant most students did not return until the next day. Temperatures have been bitterly cold for much of the month. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Samuel Gagnon says his seven-year-old daughter has told him her classroom is sometimes so cold, she wants to cry.

Gagnon, who lives in Château-Richer, north of Quebec City, said his daughter's school has been leaving the windows open in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But after sending his daughter to school on a day where it felt like –40 with the wind chill, he decided to act, calling his local member of the provincial legislature and posting a video on Facebook encouraging others to do the same.

"We have a serious problem, our children are freezing in our schools, and it's unacceptable,'' he said in an interview Friday.

For Gagnon, the solution is simple. He thinks Quebec should install air exchangers in classrooms, something that's been done in other provinces.

Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, a union that represents teachers at English-language schools in the province, said that while the Education Ministry has installed carbon dioxide detectors in around 50 per cent of classrooms, it hasn't acted to improve air quality.

Quebec has said it plans to install air exchangers in some classrooms, but Yetman said she doesn't know how many of the 400 devices the province says it has received have been installed.

"The teacher that feels unsafe in their classroom and has a CO2 detector that says 2,000 parts per million, and we're told if it goes higher than 1,500 parts per million then open your windows, that teacher is going to open windows, because she does not feel safe,'' she said in an interview Friday.

Asked to comment on Gagnon's video, Florent Tanlet, a spokesman for Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, emailed a link to a Jan. 21 press release issued by the Education Ministry saying teachers could close windows in cold weather.

"The recommendations of experts are clear: good ventilation adds to the measures already put in place, like wearing masks, distancing and the isolation measures in case of COVID-19,'' Roberge said in the release.

"As a former teacher myself, I am aware of the importance of opening windows in classrooms, but not at the expense of student comfort, especially in very cold weather.''

Mixed messages

Yetman said the government is sending mixed messages, telling teachers to open windows if the carbon dioxide level is too high, while also telling them to keep windows closed if it gets too cold.

On Thursday evening, the Education Ministry said that 49,852 students, 3.64 per cent of the total number in the province, were absent after testing positive or having a suspected case of COVID-19. It said 2,080 teachers, 1.53 per cent of the province's total, were absent due to the disease.

The ministry said that as of Jan. 25, 96 classes at public and private schools were being conducted remotely and two schools were completely or partially closed due to COVID-19.

Olivier Drouin, the founder of Covid Écoles, says Quebec should use rapid tests in more than just 72 schools. (CBC)

In-person classes in Quebec schools resumed Jan. 17, though many schools did not reopen until the following day due to a snowstorm.

Olivier Drouin, a Montreal father of two, said the province is releasing less data than earlier in the pandemic, leaving parents in the dark.

"Quebec has stopped publishing case numbers in schools. They've stopped even advising parents if there is a positive case in the class of their child,'' said Drouin, who has been tracking COVID-19 cases in schools since August 2020 with a project called COVID Écoles Québec.

Drouin said he's frustrated that the Quebec government is no longer making data on the number of cases in schools public and has "no clear action plan'' to improve air quality in schools.

Provincial Health Ministry data Friday showed that 43 children under age 10 were in hospital with COVID-19, along with another 27 people aged 10 to 19. Six of those patients under 10 were in intensive care.

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