Air quality in P.E.I. schools and COVID-19 become political football

Here's a list of the 10 Prince Edward Island schools without mechanical ventilation systems. Note that West Royalty Elementary and Charlottetown Rural High School, both sites of current outbreaks of COVID-19, are not on the list.

Expert says schools without mechanical ventilation can be more vulnerable to virus transmission

East Wiltshire Intermediate School in Cornwall does have a mechanical ventilation system, but 10 Island schools do not. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

While P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says he is "happy" with air quality in the Island's 64 schools, Opposition Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker says he is "shocked" by that. 

The pandemic has focused the public's attention on the state of disrepair in schools across Canada, specifically ventilation. Some provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador have ordered air purifiers for classrooms.

Prince Edward Island's back-to-school plan to deal with COVID-19 included a recommendation to improve ventilation systems "in schools where they do not meet standards."

For years, teachers in schools without modern mechanical ventilation systems have been told to open classroom windows multiple times each day.

But an expert who's studied school ventilation for 30 years says opening windows wasn't good enough to maintain air quality before the pandemic — and isn't good enough now.

Occupational hygienist John Oudyk says modern ventilation systems that circulate interior air more often could also help keep a lid on cold and flu season. 

"These things are not just for COVID, they're for all time," he told CBC News. "But especially when you have an outbreak of something, they become more important."

"The target for ventilation for COVID is to try to get about six air changes per hour. Without mechanical ventilation you can't do that. It's extremely difficult," said Oudyk.

Here are the 10 Prince Edward Island schools without mechanical ventilation systems.

West Royalty Elementary and Charlottetown Rural High School, two schools with current COVID-19 outbreaks, are not on the list. 

  • Alberton Elementary.
  • Belfast Consolidated.
  • Cardigan Consolidated.
  • Englewood School.
  • Georgetown Elementary.
  • O'Leary Elementary.
  • Parkdale Elementary.
  • Parkside Elementary.
  • St. Jean Elementary.
  • West Kent Elementary.

In a public briefing on COVID-19 Monday, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King was asked if the province was considering enhancements such as air purifiers in Island schools.

"Our schools are above the national standard and we are happy with that," King replied. 

P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said there is no indication the school outbreaks "have anything to do with air quality or ventilation." She noted the cases at West Royalty Elementary are all connected, but a source has not been and may never be identified. 

In a written release later in the day, the Opposition leader blamed the government for opening the door to allow COVID-19 in schools.

"I am shocked to hear him say his government is doing everything they possibly can," Bevan-Baker said.

"There are no mask mandates for the broader public, no movement on school ventilation upgrades despite having COVID contingency funds from the federal government, no mandatory vaccinations for teachers and staff."

King and Morrison said there is renewed discussion of routine, frequent testing for staff in schools who are not fully vaccinated, such as routine testing now being used in the Island's long-term care homes. They promised an announcement on that in the next few days. 

With files from Kerry Campbell