Air in Quebec schools far from ideal but children are safe, new education minister says

Bernard Drainville, Quebec's new education minister, released data on Friday indicating that only about one per cent of classrooms in Quebec have carbone dioxide levels above 1,500 parts per million.

On Friday, minister released data showing CO2 levels in Quebec classrooms

A person holds a document.
While releasing data about the air quality in the province's schools, Quebec's new education minister, Bernard Drainville, said the issue is a top priority for him. (Sylain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

According to new data from the province, only about one per cent of the province's classrooms have carbon dioxide (CO2) levels that are above what public health officials deem "adequate," leading the new education minister to say the air quality in schools is safe.

On Friday, Bernard Drainville said CO2 readers were installed in 68,548 classrooms in the last year. According to Quebec's data, 724 of those rooms showed CO2 levels above 1,500 parts per million (ppm) during the first eight weeks of this school year. A total of 72 classrooms were above 2,000 ppm.

"Those 724 classes are classes that we are monitoring very, very closely and we've asked for almost daily followups," Drainville said while meeting with reporters at the National Assembly.

"In 99 per cent of classrooms of Quebec, we are under the limit of 1,500 ppm. It's not an ideal limit, but it's an adequate limit."

Drainville was immediately asked if the data released on Friday provided a flattering portrait of the ventilation in schools by using 1,550 ppm as a measuring stick instead of 1,000 ppm — the limit Health Canada calls optimal.

"Honestly, I would love to be able to tell you that all of our classrooms are under 1,000 ppm. That's not the case," Drainville said.

According to the province's latest data, the percentage of classrooms that recorded CO2 levels under 1,000 ppm in October ranged between 76 and 85 per cent, depending on the week. 

Drainville also acknowledged that in September and October, schools could open classroom windows to improve ventilation. That won't always be the case during the harshest winter months.

"When the cold winds arrive, these numbers risk being worse, let's be honest," said the education minister. 

The province says it is able to track classroom air quality in real time due to the installation of carbon dioxide readers across Quebec. (Submitted by GRIS-Montréal)

In recent weeks, pediatric hospitals have been overwhelmed with sick children. Earlier this week, about 120,000 children were missing from school due to illness.

The minister said the Legault government has already spent $400 million on the issue of air quality in schools and will spend another $200 million during this school year.

Drainville also said the schools with the worst air quality were built before 1980, and the results highlight the need for renovations and new buildings.

The minister said the issue or air quality in schools is a top priority. His predecessor, Jean-François Roberge — who is now the French language minister — was often criticized and accused of minimizing its importance.


Antoni Nerestant is a journalist at CBC Montreal.