Action on school air quality falling behind national pandemic guidelines, says expert

·2 min read
Desks are physically distanced, but in 10 schools the windows have to be opened to recirculate the air. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)
Desks are physically distanced, but in 10 schools the windows have to be opened to recirculate the air. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

Liberal MLA Gordon McNeilly wants the P.E.I. government to do more to fix the ventilation in 10 schools to protect students and staff from COVID-19.

A report released earlier this year found 10 of the province's 56 English schools did not have mechanical ventilation systems, and guidelines from the Public Health Agency of Canada emphasize the importance of getting fresh air into buildings.

"As it stands, these 10 schools are forced to open their windows throughout a portion of the day, even during cold winter months, just to get fresh air," McNeilly said in question period Tuesday.

"This is a concern to Islanders, considering the potential risk of COVID-19 [with] poor air ventilation systems in high-populated public buildings."

Poor ventilation can increase transmission of coronavirus, says Liberal MLA Gordon McNeilly.
Poor ventilation can increase transmission of coronavirus, says Liberal MLA Gordon McNeilly.(Province of P.E.I.)

Education Minister Natalie Jameson stood to reassure McNeilly that the schools are following public health guidelines.

"The Public Health Agency of Canada has provided information that COVID-19 is not known to spread through ventilation systems," said Jameson.

"The health and safety of our students continues to remain the top priority and it has throughout the pandemic."

Clean, outside air

Guidelines issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada note outbreaks have been linked to poor ventilation, because coronavirus particles can build up over time when there is an infected individual in a room.

The guidelines prioritize diluting indoor air with outdoor air for reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus. They note the "risk of recirculating the virus through a space serviced by a single HVAC unit is unknown."

Kevin Hedges, an occupational hygienist based in Ottawa, is part of a group of scientists that has been lobbying governments about the importance of clean indoor air during the pandemic. Hedges said there has been a lag between what the Public Health Agency of Canada is saying, and what has been happening in the provinces.

Education Minister Natalie Jameson says she will look into the issue further.
Education Minister Natalie Jameson says she will look into the issue further.(Province of P.E.I.)

On reading the exchange in the P.E.I. Legislature from Tuesday, he saw another example of that.

"It wasn't really aligned with what [the Public Health Agency of Canada] are saying, and even the World Health Organization now, they're providing guidance on improved ventilation," said Hedges.

"I just feel that we could be doing so much more. And, you know, there's a lot of information out there to say that if you increase the ventilation, then you really drastically reduce the risk of being infected."

The Public Schools Branch provided the following list of schools that rely on natural ventilation.

  • Alberton Elementary.

  • Belfast Consolidated.

  • Cardigan Consolidated.

  • Englewood School.

  • Georgetown Elementary.

  • O'Leary Elementary.

  • Parkdale Elementary.

  • Parkside Elementary.

  • St. Jean Elementary.

  • West Kent Elementary.

Jameson said she would look into the issue further and provide McNeilly with an update.

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