School ventilation has improved, but parents still worry about COVID

Kate Southwell has been preparing her four-year-old son for his first day of school all summer.

She had him practice wearing a mask for long periods of time and emphasized the importance of washing his hands before his first day at a school on Toronto’s eastern edge. He also checked the Toronto District School Board list of schools to see what type of ventilation system his child’s building will have as Ontario’s COVID-19 infection rates rise once again.

“I don’t know of a single parent who is not concerned, especially seeing the number of children hospitalized with COVID outside of the states,” said Southwell, who is especially concerned about the Delta variant.

“I think principals and teachers are clearly doing their best, but they can only do so much with what they have.”

Parents across Canada share Southwell’s concern for air quality in their children’s schools.

Kyenta Martins, whose daughters are in grades 5 and 7 at a school in Vancouver, said she is angry that despite her many attempts, she has not received details on how the ventilation systems that were upgraded will be monitored.

“If you look at Vancouver as the model for ventilation when you still don’t provide details on monitoring air quality and how HVAC units work, I am very concerned about the rest of the school districts in BC,” she said.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce promised over the summer that all classrooms in the province without mechanical ventilation systems would have a separate HEPA unit when students return to school. The provincial government earmarked $ 600 million in funds specifically to improve ventilation in schools.

Last week, Lecce said the 72 publicly funded school boards in Ontario had reached that goal.

“The government has moved mountains to ensure that our ventilation improves in all publicly funded schools in the province,” Lecce said.

He said 20,000 HEPA units had been deployed in every kindergarten classroom in Ontario, whether mechanically ventilated or not, and in all learning spaces that are not mechanically ventilated.

#Schools improve ventilation # before the new year, but parents still do not breathe easily. # COVID-19

“That work will help ensure our schools are safer and follow the best advice from the medical director of pediatric and health hospitals.”

In British Columbia, officials have said Vancouver School Board central HVAC systems have been upgraded with MERV 13 filters in all schools in that district.

However, the Ministry of Education has not provided information on any of the other 59 school districts in that province.

Maia Puccetti, chief of facilities for the Toronto District School Board, said the board met and exceeded Ontario ventilation standards a week before students returned to their classrooms Thursday. She said that each learning space on the school board would have a separate HEPA filter, regardless of whether the space was mechanically ventilated or not.

“I feel very confident. I think we have done everything we could from a facilities point of view,” said Puccetti, adding that directors will have continued support if there are any unexpected problems.

“We are all committed to making this as successful as possible for students because it is very important that children go back to school.”

In addition to the physical improvements, Puccetti said that TDSB changed some of its operating practices. She said that includes running ventilation systems longer each day and changing the building’s filters more frequently.

A spokeswoman for the Calgary Board of Education said all of its schools have mechanical ventilation but, like Toronto, operating practices have changed.

Megan Geyer said that HVAC systems in Calgary public schools operate in “busy mode” before each school day and then again at the end of the school day. Additionally, HVAC systems in schools have been configured to maximize outside air intake, while still taking into account outside weather conditions.

Geyer said these measures increase air exchange rates in buildings. When busy, he said schools can work with their facility operator to increase ventilation in other ways, like opening windows.

English Montreal School Board confirmed that air purifiers were installed in all 29 school buildings.

– With files from Camille Bains in Vancouver.

This Canadian Press report was first published on September 8, 2021.

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