N.S. education minister faces backlash over comments on ventilation in schools

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, experts are learning more about ways to limit the virus's spread. One important factor is quality air ventilation in enclosed spaces, Graeme Benjamin reports with the school year just around the corner, education critics say that will be hard to achieve in classrooms.

Nova Scotia’s education minister is taking heat over his comments about ventilation in schools during the winter months.

During Friday’s update on the province’s return-to-school plan, Minister Zach Churchill said older schools will be able to stay properly ventilated by opening windows throughout the academic year.

“You can open them up a little bit, you can open them up a lot,” Churchill said Friday. “I’m sure that level of opening will be adjusted depending on what was coming into those windows depending on the weather outside.”

That statement was one of many concerns for the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, who says quality air ventilation will be hard to achieve in already-oversized classrooms.

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“It rings alarm bells for people when it sounds like the best plan to keep kids in well-ventilated spaces is to just leave the windows open in the winter and crank the heat up,” said NSTU president Paul Wozney.

“A lot of these ideas sound great on paper, but they don’t line up with what it’s actually like to go to school in Nova Scotia.”

It’s been proven the novel coronavirus can spread by droplets that can stay in a room if air is not properly circulated. Opening windows can help get air moving, but education critic Tim Halman says that’s simply not possible in some schools.

“Opening a window in January, sometimes the window’s frozen. I had classrooms where windows didn’t even open,” said Halman, who was formerly a teacher at Prince Andrew High School.

Experts say proper air circulation is just one of many components that will play a factor in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

“You can talk about two metres of distance between people, but if you still have a lot of people in a very small and close place, that still might a risk in transmitting this infection,” said infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch.

“Clearly we don’t have all the answers, but improving ventilation in a classroom setting might be part of an incremental plan toward better safety in that room.”

Minister Churchill declined an interview with Global News on Monday, but in a statement the Department of Education reiterated that every school will have its ventilation system checked and maintained.

“For some of our older schools ventilation is passive this means windows are used to allow for fresh-air flow, in these schools we are ensuring all rooms have windows in good working order,” the statement reads, in part.

The Halfiax Regional Centre for Education also declined an interview, but in a statement said teachers will be encouraged to take learning outside, when possible.

“An obvious example is physical education but there will be many other opportunities within the curriculum for teachers to explore,” said HRCE spokesperson Doug Hadley in a statement. “We know our teachers and administrators will be both creative and innovative in developing opportunities for students to be learning outside.”

Halman and Wozney say work on school’s ventilation systems should have been addressed before now.

“We have buildings that have never had a ventaliation system installed and windows have been painted shut for decades,” said Wozney.

“We’re going to have a real dog’s breakfast. We’re going to have everything from no (ventilation) system, to brand new systems that never work, to systems that parts of it work and parts of it that don’t.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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