Quebec school ventilation systems 'healthy and safe,' minister says

Critics sound alarm after report contains no data on air quality in classrooms.

CP-Web. Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge unveils an updated back-to-school plan for the 2020-2021 school year at a news conference in Montreal, Monday, August 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz ORG XMIT: RYR108

QUEBEC — A new report says the majority of Quebec’s schools have no mechanical ventilation system, forcing personnel worried about COVID-19 to open windows and doors to keep the air moving.

But despite mounting pressure, the report contains no data about the current quality of the air in classrooms, leaving critics fuming over government foot-dragging on a known problem.

“This exercise by the minister is a veritable insult to our intelligence,” Québec solidaire education critic Christine Labrie said. “How can the minister maintain our school environments are healthy and safe when he is only now asking for CO2 tests and won’t have the results for several weeks?”

Labrie was commenting on a new report released by Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge on Friday. Roberge insisted in a statement appropriate air-quality control measures and mechanisms are in place in nearly all of Quebec’s schools, enough to say they are safe.

“The data collected reveals the level of progress in the installation of air-quality control measures in school establishments is adequate,” Roberge said.

“I want to reassure the population, our school environments are healthy and safe. In the context of the pandemic, it is essential to ensure that the quality of air is adequate in all schools.”

The long-awaited 22-page report on the quality of ventilation systems in Quebec’s education system reveals that of 3,227 schools, 1,357 have mechanical ventilation systems that are regularly maintained.

But another 1,870 have no such systems and are “ventilated naturally by the opening of windows or other systems favouring the circulation of fresh air,” the report states.

Experts and opposition parties have been hammering the Coalition Avenir Québec government to do something about classroom ventilation in the wake of new evidence about the spread of the COVID-19 virus particles in the air and in aerosols.

When people breathe or speak, droplets escape into the air. Experts say the problem is actually worse in schools, where teachers are forced to speak loudly to be heard by students confined a long period of time in a closed space.

With the lack of official government data, experts and doctors have taken it upon themselves to expose the issue. An unofficial study recently conducted undercover by the COVID-STOP group revealed 75 per cent of the 25 classrooms tested had ventilation problems.

The level of carbon dioxide or CO2 is considered an indicator of the quality of ventilation in classrooms so the group tested for it. In three out of four classes tested by the teachers, the level of CO2 exceeded the acceptable level of 700 to 800 parts per million.

In certain classrooms the levels reached more 2,100 PPM.

The report says little specifically about CO2 levels or the quality of the air in general, but Roberge said ventilation norms are being respected in 99.55 per cent of establishments, either through mechanical ventilation systems or natural ones.

Maintenance of existing systems is 97.5-per-cent complete. Roberge noted systematic air-quality measures are in place in 96.55 per cent of establishments.

Roberge, however, also asks all service centres and school boards to conduct new carbon dioxide tests starting Dec. 1 to guarantee levels in the air in classrooms meet recommended standards and to “proceed immediately with required adjustments if they do not.”

For the opposition, Roberge’s decision to start testing for CO2 now smacks of stalling. It’s not enough to say the equipment is working when you are not testing the air quality, they added.

“It’s a lack of respect on his part and irresponsible to have waited so long before requiring testing,” Labrie said. “We have been asking (for testing and detectors) for weeks and up until now he said it was not useful.”

Marwah Rizqy, the Liberal education critic, said in a tweet it’s as if the minister is driving the wrong way on a highway and wondering why there is so much oncoming traffic.

“How to explain such stubbornness,” she asked. “Order the CO2 detectors and air purifiers. Hurry.”

Leon Wang, a building and cilvil engineer at Concordia University and expert in ventilation, said Roberge is being a tad optimistic in stating schools are healthy and safe based on the report that he notes does not directly deal with curbing airborne COVID-19 infections.

“The requirements against COVID-19 are much higher than the conventional measures against mould, radon and other air quality problems,” Wang said in an interview Friday in reference to the minister saying the ventilation systems are working and, in a pinch, windows can be opened.

“More efforts should be conducted to ensure a higher level of healthy and safe environments against the COVID-19 pandemic, so all parents, students and teachers feel safe this winter.”

Wang suggested immediate measures: adding CO2 detectors and portable air cleaners to classrooms, developing COVID-19-specific safety measures, reducing the number of students or student time in problem classrooms and opening windows.

Roberge has been on the ropes for weeks over his handling of the issue, but counters saying the government has invested $1.6 billion in school renovations, plus $20 million more for ventilation maintenance.

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