With over half of Quebec schools in poor condition, COVID-19 ventilation worries grow
MONTREAL -- This year, among the many new concerns parents have, is one that’s particularly hard to get up to speed on in just a few weeks: ventilation and air quality.
How easily COVID-19 particles could spread through school air depends on many factors—including some mysteries about the virus itself—but also on the age, design and maintenance of each individual school building.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad signs when it comes to how good ventilation is in most Quebec schools, experts say.
For one thing, buildings don’t need to be very old to be considered out of date by air quality standards, says Mohamed Ouf, a professor in Concordia University’s Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“A lot of the buildings that were built, let’s say, in the 70s, even the 80s and even early 90s, wouldn’t meet the ventilation requirements we have today, before COVID,” said Ouf. “So it is potentially an issue.”
MANY QUEBEC SCHOOLS IN POOR CONDITION
Most Quebec schools are far from brand new. In fact, the most recent 10-year government infrastructure plan, covering 2020 to 2030, showed that 54 per cent of the province’s schools were officially classified as being in “poor condition,” with nearly 40 per cent of those—one fifth of all Quebec schools—getting the lowest possible grade.
“This situation is mainly due to a period of low investment in the 1990s and early 2000s,” the report says.
“Moreover, as most of the schools were built between 1950 and 1970, they have reached or will soon reach the end of their useful lives. This means that many of them will need major repairs or have to be rebuilt in the coming years.”
When the province’s education minister announced $1.8 billion to speed up construction projects, he said it would be faster and cheaper to demolish and rebuild many of the schools. This, of course, will take years.
The same report said that in allocating the funding, one priority would be “the work required to correct air and moisture problems in schools,” among three priority areas.
Building experts across the continent have been trying to find quick fixes for old buildings, including schools, but even doing basic system checks or making a few upgrades takes expertise.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, known as ASHRAE, put together a task force to write guidelines for building managers and ended up publishing a 41-page guide specifically about schools.
“It is a concern, so that’s why they created that document,” said Audrey Dupuis, the president of the Montreal chapter of the organization. “It’s a guide and a checklist they can use.”
STILL UNCLEAR HOW MUCH VIRUS CAN BE AIRBORNE
Scientists haven’t concluded yet how big a role airborne particles play in the transmission of COVID-19. The World Health Organization has only gradually begun to say that transmission this way is possible, releasing a statement in July with its latest position.
Airborne spread "particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out," the WHO said at the time.
Most who study this area tend to say it’s worth being on the safe side and assuming there can be some transmission of airborne virus, even if the extent of it isn’t known.
The official position of ASHRAE, the building engineers’ society, is that it’s worth making ventilation upgrades.
“Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled,” says its official statement on the issue.
“Changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning [HVAC] systems, can reduce airborne exposures.”
EMSB SAYS OPENING WINDOWS WILL HELP
A spokesperson for the English Montreal School Board says the board maintains its ventilation systems.
“They’re kept up to date, up to speed on a very regular basis and we’re going to continue that process right now,” said spokesman Mike Cohen.
“Early on in the school year, they’ll be able to open windows in the classes, so that’ll even help more when it comes to air circulation.”
Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an extra $2 billion in school funding across the country to help make schools COVID-safe, including upgrading ventilation systems.
But school starts in less than a week, and one parent with infrastructure know-how says she isn’t feeling reassured. Heidi Ross, who lives in Saint-Sauveur, is an architectural interior designer and says she’s worried about sending her own kids back.
“We’re harming our children for what?” she said. “Yes, they have to go to school, but they can also wait a year for this to get settled.”