With school set to begin again, parents are anxious about poor ventilation and COVID-19

·4 min read

Children shouldn't be forced to return to old school buildings with poor ventilation systems, says a group of mothers at a Westmount elementary school.

"We've followed all the rules, we've taken all the measures, we're doing the best we can to protect our kids and ourselves and prevent the spread of COVID," said Elaine Carsley, whose two sons, aged 11 and 7, will be returning to Roslyn Elementary School classrooms later this month.

She worries that all those precautions will mean nothing if her children head into an unsafe school environment.

Quebec is not reducing class sizes, and only students in Grade 5 and up will have to wear a mask — except when sitting at their desks, in the gym or eating lunch.

"The reality here in Montreal is that most schools suffer from overcrowding," said Olga Maria Ruiz, another mother who is concerned about her child returning to school.

On top of that, Ruiz says, some of the windows at Roslyn (built in 1908) don't open at all and there is no adequate ventilation system.

She says she is anxious about a similar situation occurring in schools as did in Quebec's long term care facilities, hit hard early in the pandemic with several outbreaks.

Submitted by Elaine Carsley
Submitted by Elaine Carsley

Poor ventilation played a part in some of those outbreaks, according to Dr. Leighanne Parkes, an infectious disease specialist and microbiologist at the Jewish General Hospital.

"Anytime you hear poor ventilation, that should be concerning," Parkes said.

COVID-19 spreads through small droplets in the air that people emit while speaking, coughing, or singing, Parkes explained. Some studies indicate those particles could be contagious for as long as three hours afterwards.

Parkes says funnelling old air out of classrooms and replacing it with fresh air from the outside is important in preventing outbreaks — although the cold winter air in Montreal could make opening windows a challenge.

However, Parkes notes, good ventilation is just one of many important pieces in any strategy to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak. Physical distancing rules and proper hygiene are also key.

The English Montreal School Board, which oversees Roslyn Elementary School, said it is following provincial regulations, set by the education ministry.

When asked about poor ventilation in schools, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said the province is spending millions on renovating and upgrading schools, and will continue to do so.

Ontario's education minister, in turn, announced Thursday that he is spending $50 million to upgrade ventilation and HVAC systems in schools.

Schools not like CHSLDs

Étienne Robert, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering at École Polytechnique and a specialist in the propagation of pathogens by aerosols, says the situation in schools is very different from that in CHSLDs, Quebec's long term care homes.

"We know for a fact that children can carry the virus, they can shed particles, they can produce aerosols, but they will be in very small numbers," Robert said.

Residents in long-term care homes, by contrast, shed an "outrageous amount" of virus particles through coughing or sneezing, says Robert.

"We're not talking about a couple of times more, we're talking about orders of magnitude," he said.

The importance of ventilation depends on a better understanding of how the virus is transmitted, says Robert.

The World Health Organization (WHO) initially said the virus spread through bigger droplets in the air, but changed course in July to include the possibility of COVID being transmitted via aerosol, or tiny droplets in the air.

Robert says he suspects the answer lies somewhere in between.

"There must be some viruses that can survive a bit on both sides of the spectrum," he said.

Several studies are underway to determine the answer, Robert says, but those studies can take a long time, given the challenge of capturing the tiny particles.

This fall, Robert will be sending his own three children back to school. He says his family will continue to be very careful, and despite the unknowns, he believes the benefits of sending kids back to school far outweigh the costs.

The parents at Roslyn, however, say they remain worried. They say public officials should be thinking "outside the box" for solutions, instead of forcing students into classrooms that could be unsafe.