Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia to upgrade ventilation systems in some schools

With students due to return to classrooms next week and the Omicron wave of COVID-19 still surging, the province is looking to upgrade some school ventilation systems. Changes are not expected to happen before schools are set to reopen on Jan. 10.

Changes are not expected to happen in time for students' return on Jan. 10

Seventy schools in Nova Scotia, about 19 per cent, do not have any mechanical ventilation. Instead they rely on natural forces like wind to circulate air. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

With Nova Scotia students due to return to classrooms next week and the Omicron wave of COVID-19 still surging, the province is looking to upgrade some school ventilation systems.

At a COVID-19 briefing Monday, Premier Tim Houston said schools with passive ventilation systems are the target. Passive ventilation systems have no mechanical components and rely on natural forces — such as wind blowing in through windows — to provide air circulation.

Ventilation reports from August 2021 show about 19 per cent of Nova Scotia schools (70 out of 373) have passive ventilation.

All remaining schools, about 81 per cent, have what Houston described as "pretty high quality HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] systems," and are not expected to be part of this round of upgrades.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston fields a question at a COVID-19 briefing last month. He says some schools will get new ventilation equipment, in response to public demand. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Houston underscored that Public Health has not identified any issues with ventilation in schools, but he added, "we hear what's happening in the community and we want to be responsive so we're looking at those schools [with passive systems]."

For much of the pandemic, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and some parents have been pressing the government to upgrade school ventilation systems.

NSTU president Paul Wozney continued in that vein Monday, saying in a news release that schools have "questionable ventilation."

It was one of the reasons, in addition to the decision to end contract tracing by Public Health for school cases, that Wozney said classrooms are not ready to reopen. He called for the province to reinstate remote learning for at least the first week of the new term.

The province's approach to school ventilation during the pandemic, until now, has been to routinely check and maintain existing systems. Teachers have been encouraged to open windows, when possible, to improve air flow. 

The August ventilation reports show about 94 per cent of ventilation systems received some kind of maintenance (no details are provided) and 100 per cent were "operating as intended" before the start of the 2021 school year.

At Monday's briefing, Houston said talks are ongoing about buying equipment to be set up in classrooms that currently have passive ventilation. He said he doesn't expect any changes to happen before students are scheduled to return to classrooms on Jan. 10.

When asked for specifics about the equipment, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said details are being sorted out and more information will be shared by the end of the week.

Some provinces, including Ontario and Newfoundland, have purchased portable HEPA filtration systems for classrooms.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said "optimizing ventilation is important," but not a panacea.

"We have to have a multiple-layered approach and it's all those different layers, none of which by themselves are perfect, but it's the layers working together that provide good levels of protection."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taryn Grant

Reporter

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter and web writer for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at taryn.grant@cbc.ca

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