The province’s promises of a safe return to school amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are being called into question, specifically relating to school ventilation systems.
With a young daughter with chronic health issues, Corey Slumkoski was anxious about sending his daughter back to school this September. She has hypersecretory asthma, and her doctors recommended that she be pulled out of school at the earliest signs of community spread of COVID-19.
But still, seven-year-old Quinn Walls-Slumkoski was excited to head back to school, so on Sept. 8, her bag was packed and her parents walked her to school.
Quinn is entering Grade 1 and is mostly non-verbal so she spends much of her time in the school’s learning centre. Slumkoski says previously it was in a nice room with both a sink and windows, but this year the centre was moved to a new space with no windows.
“So we had some concerns about ventilation,” said Slumkoski.
“We were told it came with a special fan with a filter so we assumed it was some sort of air purifier.”
But then after a picture was posted to social media by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, the parents learned the ‘special fan’ was actually just a regular box fan with a furnace filter taped to the back.
After the issue was raised publicly, the fan was immediately removed from the room.
“We were told after the fact the fan and filter were a supplement to the actual ventilation system that’s in the room, but our concern was it was trumpeted in advance as part of the safety protocol for our daughter,” said Slumkoski.
But he now worries that the ventilation system in his daughter’s school is not up to the task of protecting students from the virus.
“In order to prevent the spread you need a specialized filtration system that most schools, probably all schools do not have,” he said.
In August, at a press conference about back to school, Education Minister Zach Churchill announced that all schools would have their ventilation systems inspected and repaired or upgraded if needed before students returned to the classroom.
“There’s been a big flashy announcement that we’re going to spend money and fix it but no evidence that the work has been done and repairs have been made,” said Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union.
“There’s no information available to us to teachers at site level and to parents about whether or not ventilation systems have been inspected. There’s no information about whether or not the systems are working at full capacity, whether there’s problems, what repairs were needed and if those repairs were done.”
Wozney says there are also many schools that do not have any ventilation system and others that do are not up to date.
“There’s plenty of schools that have joint occupational safety filings going back 10-20 years and the ventilation systems were never fixed before COVID, and based on feedback from staff at the site the problems were never fixed,” he said.
The Minister of Education did not respond to a request for an interview on the subject but in an emailed statement the department says the work was completed.
“Our regions and CSAP conducted a detailed review of all HVAC systems before students returned to school; this review included filter maintenance, lubrication, inspections and checking electrical and controls. The majority of the work performed was regular, preventative maintenance that would be due or coming due shortly; and any additional work identified during the checks was completed.”
Slumkoski says while the return to school hasn’t been the smoothest, he is impressed and so thankful for all the hard work that teachers and educational assistants are doing. But he says he would like to see clearer lines of communication through all levels of the education system, from the government down to the individual schools and to parents, so that everyone has a clear understanding of policies and procedures with regards to COVID-19.