Lack of School Ventilation Upgrades Leaves Nova Scotia Students at Risk

Jan. 12, 2022


Ryan Lutes is a teacher at Halifax West High School and past-president of the Halifax City local of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. He lives in Bedford.

About a year ago, a freedom of information request by allNovaScotia revealed that the Nova Scotia government had not performed any ventilation or air quality testing in our schools.

Another year has gone by, and variants Delta and Omicron have made COVID-19 even more transmissible. We are dealing with day after day of new daily case records. Still, there has been no system-wide air quality or ventilation testing in our schools.

In addition, there has been no data released by the province to suggest any upgrades to any school ventilation systems, even though the federal government has provided a significant amount of money for that purpose. The only action taken has been that each school’s ventilation system has been checked to ensure it is “operating as intended.”

Recently, Education Minister Becky Druhan stated that “upgrades have been made to ventilation systems where that was determined to be necessary through the course of the pandemic.” Again, I would submit that this language does not paint an accurate picture of what systems are in place at each school. If significant upgrades have taken place, the government should release detailed information instead of hiding behind a ventilation report that is merely a set of checklists and vague jargon.

The fact is, there are 60+ schools in all corners of our province that do not have a mechanical ventilation system. It is difficult to understand what “upgrades” have taken place at these sites to ensure the air is safe, especially given the increased transmissibility of omicron.

Each regional centre for education has provided a checklist that states that 100 per cent of its respective ventilation systems are operating as intended. While this information is minimally helpful, there has been no testing to ensure that the air in each classroom would meet today’s air quality standards.

This is akin to turning on your car’s engine, seeing if it starts, but not taking the car for a test drive to see if it runs safely.

Let’s be clear, “operating as intended” doesn’t mean that the ventilation system and air quality are up to modern standards. It doesn’t indicate that our students are safe during a pandemic that has impacted over 80+ schools over the last month or so. “Operating as intended” means nothing more than the system is operating similarly to when it was originally installed. For those schools with no mechanical ventilation system, it’s difficult to contemplate what “operating as intended” even means.

For example, Burton Ettinger Elementary School was built in 1959 and does not have a mechanical ventilation system. Burton Ettinger was also recently temporarily closed for six days to help curb the spread of COVID-19. You’ll remember former Liberal education minister Zach Churchill came under fire for suggesting that older schools without mechanical systems will be able to stay properly ventilated by opening windows.

Apparently, opening windows has not been effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The Nova Scotia government chose the language “operating as intended” very precisely. Unfortunately, that language provides no salient information and misleads the public to believe that ventilation systems are safe and up to modern standards.

Burton Ettinger is hardly an outlier in Nova Scotia schools. In fact, there are at least 60 schools in Nova Scotia that have no mechanical ventilation system. Yet, even with the absence of a proper, modern-day ventilation system, all of these schools received a seal of approval from their respective RCE. To make matters worse, many of these older buildings are elementary schools where, until recently, students could not be vaccinated. Opening a window in the middle of a Nova Scotia winter with an unvaccinated population should not be the best we can do, almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Modernizing school ventilation systems is an expensive and labour-intensive task. It would be unreasonable for anyone to expect that our government could modernize every ventilation system in a relatively short time.

However, other provinces (Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I.) have attempted to address this issue, at least in the short term, by providing portable air filtration systems to each classroom. These systems augment the existing mechanical or passive system and would positively impact the safety of the students and school staff.

If Nova Scotia had gone in a similar direction, it is possible that we could have decreased the significant number of school exposure notices that we have seen recently. So, why is Nova Scotia dragging its feet on improving the ventilation in our schools?

The fact that we are almost two years into a global pandemic caused by a virus transmitted through the air, and our schools have made little progress in modernizing our ventilation systems, is extremely concerning.

It is incumbent on our government to make some significant investments in improving the ventilation in our schools. Our students and staff should not be at a more significant risk of contracting COVID-19 based on their particular school. All students and staff, even those who attend an older school without mechanical ventilation systems, deserve to be in safe spaces where COVID contraction is minimized.

Without any additional ventilation improvements, the Nova Scotia government cannot truthfully say that it is doing everything it can to keep our schools safe.

It’s well past time for our government to commit to testing the ventilation and air quality of every classroom, provide air filtration systems ASAP, and develop a long-term plan to have safe, quality air in all Nova Scotia schools.

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