Ventilation, not class sizes, is the big deal for school boards, experts say

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TORONTO – As we move closer to reopening schools across the country, experts point out that ventilation in schools is an under-discussed issue in a COVID-19 world. In an attempt to keep students, teachers, and staff safe, many school boards minimize class sizes and stagger when cohorts take classes in order to keep students in a smaller bubble. Depending on the age of the students and the region, wearing fabric masks is also mandatory or recommended.

But these measures alone fail to solve the major infrastructure problem that still plagues many schools: ventilation.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist, told CTV News Channel that there is no magic number for class size, as it depends on the density and airspace in individual classrooms.

“I worry a lot that all the talk and focus on class size leaves us ignoring something that is actually more important for safety, and that is air quality,” he said. -he declares. “I haven’t heard enough about classroom-to-classroom inspections to see if the air quality and ventilation are adequate. You can shrink a class, you can take the kids out of the room, but if you don’t ventilate the room, those who remain are always in danger.

“Some classrooms don’t even have windows in Ontario. So that’s a problem. ”

He added that he personally walks to older schools where it is clear that “the windows have been painted shut for years, if not decades”.

According to infectious disease specialist Dr Matthew Oughton, this problem with the buildings themselves is a problem we’ve seen before, with many long-term care facilities.

“Often these buildings are older, have inadequate facilities to allow good physical distance, often they have inadequate facilities for adequate ventilation,” he told CTV News Channel. “There are a lot of school buildings where you can’t even open the windows, which is a pretty easy way to improve ventilation, so these are all things that are going to work against us.”

And school buildings don’t have to be extremely old to risk poor ventilation.

Mohamed Ouf, professor in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Concordia University, told CTV News Montreal that buildings constructed in the 1980s or even early 1990s still could not meet ventilation needs. today, even without taking COVID-19 into account. .

In Quebec alone, more than half of schools were officially classified as being in “poor condition” in terms of infrastructure, according to the government’s most recent ten-year report.

Our understanding of how COVID-19 spreads is still not perfect. After being urged by more than 200 scientists to add airborne transmission to their list of ways the virus is spread, the World Health Organization released a scientific brief in July indicating that the scientific community was investigating the possibility.

“Short-range aerosol transmission, especially in specific indoor locations, such as overcrowded and insufficiently ventilated spaces for an extended period with infected people, cannot be ruled out,” the brief said.

The droplets produced when an infected person speaks or coughs are the main way the virus spreads, scientists believe, but evidence of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic spread has also led scientists to take a closer look at airborne transmission. This is when the virus-carrying microdroplets remain airborne for a longer period after heavier droplets have fallen to the ground.

It is still unclear what role airborne transmission could play in the spread of COVID-19, but if it is a threat, ventilation and airflow in an indoor space are crucial to examine .

Furness says to be on the safety side, school boards should consider implementing short-term ventilation solutions if they have inadequate ventilation.

“We have an immediate need for portable air cleaners in classrooms,” he said. “Because it can be done quickly and easily. Is it ideal? No. But an air cleaner in a classroom can actually have a much bigger impact than removing three or four children. ”

He added that as children return to school, their families should take the extra step of limiting their own social interactions in order to keep their bubble as small as possible, now that their child will interact with more people in their area. class.

“We need these smaller bubbles,” he says.

While he thinks schools need to do more on the ventilation angle, he says his kids will be going back to school in September for now.

“I’m doing this comfortably because I think it’s safe now,” he said. “That could change, but for now I think it’s a good thing to do, especially for children’s development and mental health.

With files from Andrew Brennan and Selena Ross of CTV News Montreal

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