Newfoundland and Labrador's education minister says 4,000 classrooms across the province will likely have an air purification system by the time school starts in September.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District issued a tender for the purification units last week.
According to Education Minister Tom Osborne, 4,000 units would cover every classroom across the province in both the English and francophone school districts, but he said Tuesday he wasn't sure if that number includes schools under Indigenous control.
Air quality and ventilation in schools has become a hot-button issue over the past year, as students prepare to return to the classroom amid a low number of provincial COVID-19 cases.
Concern over the delta variant of the virus, however, continues to plague the board.
The issue was brought up in criticism of Newfoundland and Labrador's back-to-school plan for September, which featured no tangible details of a ventilation plan.
"The primary objective here is to clean the air within the classroom," Osborne told CBC Radio's On The Go. "It will provide a better air quality in the classroom for educators, for students and for staff in the schools as well."
Osborne said ventilation is one of the key issues for himself, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and Premier Andrew Furey heading into the school year — in contrast to comments made last August by NLESD president Tony Stack, who said a ventilation plan centred on opening windows in classrooms.
"In brief, the natural ventilation policy is very simply, opening windows and opening them to the degree possible," Stack said at the time.
The district issued the tender on Friday, giving potential suppliers just one week to submit their bids. According to the tender, the bidding price must also include delivery to locations across the province within two weeks of purchase.
"I don't know exactly what they look like, and part of the reason for that is we don't know which company is going to tender.… Some may mount to the wall, some may exhaust through the window," Osborne said. "We do know that they have to provide the guarantee that they will eliminate the COVID virus and other viruses such as the flu virus."
Osborne said the cost of the project will be determined by the bids the district gets but the price will "certainly be in the millions." He said he wouldn't share the expected price range because it could affect the bidding process.
The Department of Education is looking at identifying savings to help the provincial government fund the project, he said, but money could also come from the province's COVID-19 contingency fund.
With students returning to the classroom in just under three weeks, Osborne said he believes the accelerated timeline will translate to most — if not all — units being in place by September. However, the uncertainty of supply chains isn't leading to any promises.
"The company that gives us the guarantee of delivery and installation of these units, that will be one of the variables.… Price and efficiency of the units, the quality of the units and certainly the delivery of the units all have to be evaluated," he said.
"I'm not prepared to say there's an absolute guarantee that they'll be in place the first week of September, but it's certainly our hope that that is the case."
In the meantime, Osborne said classrooms that don't have ventilation units already installed should continue to open windows whenever possible if units aren't in classrooms in time.
"Certainly for September and October, the weather is generally warm enough and acceptable to have windows operational within the schools. But again, I am optimistic … that they will be installed in September."
NDP MHA Jim Dinn, noting some of the uncertainty in Osborne's comments, said he wants a more thoughtful plan to address a "long-standing deficiency" in school ventilation.
He also said the plan should have been rolled out months ago.
"The minister should have been on the ball with this after last September," Dinn said.
"There is no excuse why this is not in place already."
Dinn, a former teacher, was also critical of the short timeline for delivering and installing the air purification units.
"Do I think that these will be there on time? I will be surprised beyond belief if that's the case. I just cannot see how this is going to happen," he said.
"It baffles me how we can take a such a reactionary approach to the health and well-being of our school communities."