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Poor ventilation in N.S. classrooms continues to be health risk, says teachers union

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney says as the 2020-2021 school year comes to an end, poor ventilation in classrooms continues to be one of the biggest issues, especially during this pandemic.

Wozney says rather than installing improved ventilation systems in every classroom, the province had schools bank on hand sanitizer and masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Nova Scotia teachers prepare for the end of a tumultuous school year

“We know now once we had community spread, schools really drove infection rates. We saw community spread within schools and … at the worst of it, we had schools where they didn’t even bother trying to contact trace where cases came from because there were so many cases that happen at school,” he said in a year-end interview with Global News.

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Wozney said that if ventilation systems were installed, then schools could have been able to operate in-person learning year-round and never had to move to remote learning.

It’s what the union has proposed to the province last year, he said.

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“Those suggestions were affordable. They were doable, but they were ignored,” Wozney said.

During an update on the province’s return-to-school plan in August 2020, Zach Churchill, the minister of education at the time, said older schools would be able to stay properly ventilated by opening windows throughout the academic year.

That statement was one of many concerns for the teachers union, which said quality air ventilation would be hard to achieve in already oversized classrooms.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia education minister under pressure to release school ventilation test results

Churchill had promised inspections, repairs, and upgrades to be completed on those systems as part of the plan to make schools safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Churchill later changed portfolios to become minister of health.

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But Wozney said ventilation upgrades have not happened.

As students and teachers now head towards a September school return Wozney said the union is particularly concerned about children younger than 12 who can’t be vaccinated who are going back to classrooms that are remain poorly ventilated.

“They’re not going to be physically distanced. We know that there’s growing fatigue around masking. And frankly, in this third wave, the flare-ups we’ve had have all been in elementary schools with kids that are not vaccinated,” Wozney said.

He said there should be the political will to put the resources in schools to improve air quality ventilation.

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We’re not through the pandemic yet. We would like to be done with it. But if we relax, we could be in a very bad situation again next year,” Wozney said.

In August 2020, the province received funding of $47.9 million from the federal government to improve safety in schools and make sure they stay open during the pandemic.

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Wozney said none of that money was spent on reworking the ventilation systems in schools, and instead was spent on computers.

“I think what this highlights is the schools that we send our kids to, day in and day out, are far less likely to meet national standards for workplace safety than the workplaces we send adults to work,” he said.

“If we don’t fix our ventilation problems, we potentially have a very real public health issue on our hands heading into September.”

An interview with N.S. Education Minister Derek Mombourquette about the past school year, and what may lie ahead will come on Friday.

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