Mechanical engineer calls for better ventilation in N.S. schools with students nearing return

·3 min read
A row of desks is seen in an empty classroom. Students in Nova Scotia will return to school in person on Sept. 7.  (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
A row of desks is seen in an empty classroom. Students in Nova Scotia will return to school in person on Sept. 7. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

A mechanical engineer is calling for better ventilation in Nova Scotia schools, especially as his two young daughters who aren't eligible to be vaccinated head back to class for another year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They don't have very many protections for themselves," Aaron Smith, whose daughters are both under 12 and go to school in Halifax, said Monday.

"So I feel that at the very minimum, we need to upgrade our ventilation system to provide a minimum level of protection until they can become vaccinated."

Ventilation in schools has become an important topic during the pandemic. It is back in the spotlight as students in Nova Scotia are expected to return to in-person classes next week.

In January, Zach Churchill, the education minister at the time, said COVID-19 safety in schools is "contingent on ventilation."

Last week, Nova Scotia released a back-to-school plan that stated the province is committed to continuing inspections and maintenance of school ventilation systems.

Smith, who has worked on ventilation systems in Nova Scotia schools, said this may not be enough, particularly in older schools that rely on "passive" ventilation.

Passive ventilation uses natural sources, like opening a window.

Schools with passive ventilation, including the elementary school Smith's daughters attend, were asked to open their windows as much as possible last year, even during the winter.

"They had trouble maintaining proper air quality during the school year, especially when the winter came around and the cold temperatures forced them to close the windows some days," Smith told CBC's Information Morning.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

He said opening windows did help the air quality, but it's not a permanent solution.

Instead, he recommends portable air filters be installed in classrooms that don't have proper ventilation.

Ontario and Newfoundland both announced that portable air filters will be installed in schools this fall.

"It's something that can be done in the short term … but then I think there's some more permanent upgrades that can be done in the future to address ventilation concerns," Smith said.

During the pandemic, the federal and the provincial governments have announced millions in funding to repair and upgrade schools in Nova Scotia, including ventilation systems.

Smith said his daughters' school is slated to get upgrades but he hasn't heard any updates about the ventilation system.

In an email, Nova Scotia's Department of Education said all ventilation systems are being inspected, and required maintenance has been or will be completed before school starts.

The department said it has received "specific guidance on ventilation" that will continue to be implemented this year.

"Public Health and the experts from the IWK are confident that this approach, which has been successful over the last year, will continue to keep schools safe," it said, adding that the use of outdoor learning spaces will continue when weather permits.

The Education Department did not say if it's considering portable air filters for classrooms with passive systems.

Smith said he doesn't expect the filters will be installed by next week, but he's hopeful the province will consider them and install them over the next month.

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