Manitoba divisions complete air system upgrades as new school year looms

As the risk of more variants of concern are heightened, Global's Abigail Turner looks at what school divisions in Manitoba are doing to protect students from COVID-19 transmission in the fall.

Nearly all of Manitoba’s school divisions say they’ve made changes to air quality in their classrooms since the pandemic began.

With vaccines ramping up and COVID-19 cases going down, 200,000 people in Manitoba are under the age of 12 — nearly 15 per cent of the province’s population — and still don’t qualify for a coronavirus shot, putting the pressure on school divisions to make sure classrooms are safe.

Out of the province’s 37 school divisions, 33 tell Global News they’ve been increasing filter changes or have made adjustments to their HVAC system.

“Even if vaccines became available for the next age group, five to 12, that wouldn’t be until the fall. And then you’re looking at a month to two months at least before they have full immunity. So these next few months, the students are at risk,” said Winnipeg physician Dr. Lisa Bryski.

“We don’t want to take chances with people who are vulnerable, and put them in a population density of a classroom without vaccines.”

One way to keep classrooms safe is to look into schools’ ventilation, according to Jeffery Siegel, a professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto.

“Ventilation is enormously important for respiratory disease transmission,” said Siegel.

He recommends schools take a multi-layer approach.

“We should absolutely be addressing ventilation, filtration in those spaces,” he said.

“We know that some people don’t wear masks very well. We know that not everyone can be vaccinated. We know that sometimes you can’t put in as good a filter as you want or you don’t have enough HEPA filters for the classroom.

“So the idea is you want to get as many of these layers as possible.”

To have a properly ventilated classroom, Siegel said there should be six air changes every hour.

Turnover that is as low as one or two is not good enough, as particles can remain in the air for too long, he added.

“A lot of contaminants in the space, as well as respiratory virus particles, can linger for a long enough period of time that we’re seeing a higher risk of infection.”

Opening windows can help, he said, but there are a lot of varying factors.

“It depends on where the windows are, depends on what the wind is, what the inside-outside temperature difference is.

“I always like to say, sure, open windows if you can, but I sure hope that they’re not our (whole) strategy because they’re kind of a very uncontrolled approach.”

Air filtration is even better when combined with other prevention methods, said Bryski.

A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows transmission can be reduced by 72 per cent when wearing a mask, while proper air filtration with high-efficiency cleaners can reduce transmission by 65 per cent.

That same study shows those numbers increase to 90 per cent when those steps are paired together.

“We shouldn’t back off from this because it’s too hard. Look how we didn’t with masks,” Bryski said. “We need to do the same with our environment and our building health.”

School division plans

Some divisions, like the Winnipeg School Division, say they aren’t making any major changes after a review of their operations and systems.

Meanwhile, some divisions say they’re using new types of technology to help stop the virus from spreading.

The Flin Flon School Division said it’s waiting on funding approval to install an ultraviolet germicidal irradiation system in all of its schools.

The River East Transcona School Division is piloting needlepoint bipolar ionization — a type of technology Seigel said is unproven and strongly encourages schools not to invest in.

“I really encourage schools to only invest in the things that have been demonstrated to actually have a positive effect,” he said.

“There’s a lot of technologies that not only might not be that effective, but also can cause harms because they can cause so many byproducts as they clean the air. And those things can be harmful, especially to kids.”

The Manitoba School Board Association says they recognize each building has different needs, saying when students return this fall, routine surface cleaning, hand washing and PPE will be used – while ventilation upgrades will be done when required.

“Like the school system itself, when it comes to ventilation in school spaces, there is no one size fits all approach. There are a host of considerations that must be taken into account such as the age of the building, seating layout, placement of air intakes and vents, circulation patterns, and filtration.” Alan Campbell, the president of the Manitoba School Board Association said in a statement to Global News.

Provincial funding

Earlier this year, the Manitoba government announced the Safe Schools funding for ventilation system repairs or maintenance.

A government spokesperson told Global News they do not keep track of when schools are undertaking these repairs or addressing maintenance issues.

However, they did say they believe many safety upgrades have been addressed, including maintenance on ventilation systems.

Read more:
Manitoba commits $58 million in COVID-19 funding for schools next year

The total amount of funding used by school divisions was $15.7 million by April 30 and $1.5 million by independent schools as of March 31.

For HVAC operations, 14 school divisions will spend a total of $750,000 by June 30. As for individual schools that applied, 11 say they will have spent a total of $51,000 in that same time frame.

For central forced air systems, Siegel recommends a MERV 13 filter.

“Filters in a 13 filter will remove at least about 85 per cent of the particles that we think are responsible for a lot of the spread of COVID-19.”

Siegal noted that simply putting in a new filter is not always possible.

“Sometimes (they) might have to make some other system modifications to do that, which can get into more money.”

He also recommends schools check their filter bypass.

“If you go to a typical school and go look at the filter rack, you’re going to see that there’s often kind of gaps around the filter,” he said, adding that it’s important to seal the filter’s edges with tape so the air goes straight through.

He also suggests portable filters for classrooms without ventilation or central filtration, as teachers can simply plug them into walls.

Other provinces have released guideline documents, including Ontario Public Health, showing what changes are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. In a statement to Global News, a provincial spokesperson says they have not released a similar document for Manitobans.

“A large number of ventilation evidence and guidance documents have been prepared by other provinces/territories and at the national (Public Health Agency of Canada) and international (Communicable Disease Control) levels. When Manitoba public health officials are asked for guidance, organizations are advised to review the available credible information to inform their decisions. This ensures consistency with advice from a range of expert sources.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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