Ottawa school boards see big investment for ventilation system upgrades
Spread of delta variant of COVID-19 is a serious unknown come September, says board director
With September around the bend, the federal and provincial governments have been handing out millions of dollars to schools.
The focus: improving air circulation and ventilation systems to keep COVID-19 outbreaks at bay.
"Working with public health, we're not aware of any spread in our schools through the HVAC systems," said Tom D'Amico, director of education with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. HVAC is the acronym for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.
"That's something we learned: that the steps did work. However, what we don't know moving into this year is the impact of the Delta variant."
Ontario's ventilation spend: $600 million
When bells ring to start the school year, the halls of elementary schools will be filled with students under 12, who aren't currently eligible for vaccines.
To minimize their risk of catching and spreading coronavirus, the province recently announced it would invest an additional $25 million to buy thousands of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters for schools before the first day.
All classrooms, gyms, libraries and other spaces without mechanical ventilation will be required to have standalone filter units, including kindergarten classrooms.
The extra funding brings to $600 million the amount the provincial government alone has dedicated to improving school HVAC systems.
Upgrading a single building's systems isn't cheap, D'Amico said, with one Ottawa school needing $400,000 to replace 30-year-old heat pumps — roughly the salaries of between four to five teachers.
At the same school, the Catholic board is also spending $200,000 from the federal government on separate ventilation systems for portable classrooms.
Prior to Ontario setting new standards for air filter units set on Tuesday, D'Amico said the board's ventilation systems were at or above standard.
But by improving them, it provides one extra layer of protection for students and teachers alike.
"We don't know the impact of vaccines. We certainly anticipate less spread because of the number of students and staff that will be vaccinated," he said. "But there's just that unknown of the spread of the variants."
Improvements well underway
Darcy Knoll, a spokesperson for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said the government's recent policy change — requiring all kindergarten rooms to have HEPA filter units — is in line with work the board had already completed.
The extra $25 million equates to the board receiving 780 units and an additional $161,000, which Knoll said should allow it to meet the province's expectations.
"Moving forward, we will add filters into spaces such as gyms, libraries and other learning spaces which were not occupied last year, as well as the additional classrooms due to the increase in in-person enrolment," Knoll wrote in an emailed statement.
D'Amico said what he's looking forward to most is welcoming back students, who likely won't notice all the work that's gone on above their heads.
"Well that's the thing with HVAC, you don't notice [it] a lot," he said.
With files from CBC's Amanda Pfeffer