The Current

Focus on improving ventilation in schools a 'silver lining' of pandemic, says parent

A Toronto parent concerned about ventilation in classrooms this winter says COVID-19 could present an opportunity to make improvements to schools that were already in disrepair long before the pandemic.

With winter here, some schools looking to beef up air quality to prevent COVID-19

Parents and experts have been raising alarm bells about ventilation in schools since the fall. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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A Toronto parent concerned about ventilation in classrooms this winter says COVID-19 could present an opportunity to make improvements to schools that were already in disrepair long before the pandemic.

"It's never been a particularly sexy or interesting topic, up until March of 2020. And then all of a sudden we've never had more interest in ventilation in schools," said Krista Wylie, co-founder of Fix Our Schools, which advocates for safe, well-maintained public schools in Ontario.

"That perhaps is a silver lining to COVID, is that it's increased everybody's awareness of the criticality of school buildings to the safety, the health, the well-being of our kids," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Since the beginning of the school year this fall, parents and experts alike have been raising concerns about students working in poorly ventilated, crowded spaces. In early November, the Public Health Agency of Canada updated its COVID-19 guidelines to acknowledge the risk of transmission by microscopic airborne particles, which can linger in the air for seconds to hours and travel more than two metres.

That information has helped shift the conversation about the spread of COVID-19 indoors. With winter now upon us and people more likely to gather inside, experts say proper ventilation — in addition to the usual tactics of wearing masks, physical distancing and practising good hygiene — can help reduce the risk of catching the virus.

But not all schools are equipped with ventilation systems that are up to par. In Toronto, many do not have mechanical ventilation, meaning staff rely on opening windows — even in cold weather — to increase air circulation.

In Quebec, an informal study of nearly 25 Montreal-area classrooms found that 75 per cent of those tested had ventilation issues. The English Montreal School Board voted on Wednesday to purchase 800 air purifiers for classrooms that are not properly ventilated.

Joe Ortona, the school board's chair, said opening classroom doors and windows worked fine at the beginning of the school year. 

"But it's obviously not ideal for Canadian winters," he told Galloway. 

He said the air purifiers offer an alternative solution. 

Krista Wylie is the co-founder of the Fix Our Schools campaign, which advocates for safe, well-maintained public schools in Ontario. (Talia Ricci/CBC )

As we move through the pandemic, Wylie said it's important to "prioritize [schools] as the very critical infrastructure that they are."

As of November 2019, there was a backlog of more than $16 billion in repairs needed at schools in Ontario alone.

And although school boards are often held accountable for maintaining these buildings, Wylie said, the provinces are responsible for doling out money that can pay for needed repairs.

"The school boards shouldn't have been having to scramble over the summer to improve school classroom ventilation," Wylie said. "That should have been something that was done a long time ago."

Schools need 'layered solution,' says engineer

In late November, the Quebec government promised to start testing carbon monoxide levels in classrooms starting this month. 

But Jeffrey Siegel, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto, thinks it's time to spend money on actually fixing the problem we know exists, "rather than spending money on measuring it."

Although opening windows is helpful, "that shouldn't be the only arrow in our quiver," he added. Instead, improving air quality requires a "layered solution."

The first step is to increase ventilation, he said.

"Once we've increased ventilation, we want to address things like filtration," which he said could be achieved with things like portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

Jeffrey Siegel, a civil engineering professor in Toronto, says opening classroom windows shouldn't be the only method schools use this winter to improve air quality. (Submitted by Jeffrey Siegel)

Schools should also continue to follow other guidelines for stopping the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks and practising physical distancing.

Unfortunately, addressing ventilation issues in schools is a bit of a "messy" process, Siegel said, as it often needs to be done on a classroom-by-classroom basis.

"But it's certainly very doable, and many school districts around the world have done it and done it successfully," he said.

The benefits of improved air quality, he added, are enormous — from improving cognitive function, to improving well-being and reducing health-care costs.

"Let's take this moment where we're all focused on these systems — and frankly, they've been neglected — and let's invest in them," he said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alex Zabjek and Alison Masemann.


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