On the heels of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s back-to-school announcement, which included another $25 million to improve ventilation in schools, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is revealing what students will see when they return to the classroom next month.
Standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters will be in every classroom, portable and wellness room across the TDSB in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
“It was something that we committed to doing last year. So we have about 14,000 units currently in schools. We have another 1,500 units on order that will be delivered in the next couple of weeks and then we will be placing another order because we know there will still be some other spaces that that may require them,” explained Maia Puccetti, executive officer of facility services and planning with the TDSB.
The HEPA units were chosen because they make very little noise when running on the low setting.
Teachers will be advised to turn the unit to high-speed first thing in the morning when the students enter the classroom but they can turn it down and let it run on low or medium through the rest of the day.
“This unit is sized for 1,500 square feet and our average classroom is about 750 square feet. So a unit like this will do two air exchanges in an hour. What it does is it draws the air in, goes through the HEPA filter and then circulates the air back out. So this is not providing new ventilation, but what it is doing is filtering the air,” Puccetti added.
“I’m feeling very comfortable and confident that our staff coming in, our teachers, other staff members, and most importantly, our students and our families coming back will be met with a space that has additional ventilation,” said Zorina Alli, principal at Highland Heights Junior Public School.
“We are in a good place from a health and safety perspective, so I’m feeling really pleased.”
Highland Heights Junior Public School, like others in the TDSB, also has a cooling centre in the gymnasium and there will be a push for more outdoor learning.
“Before COVID, we made a lot of use of the great outdoor spaces and more so now that we are encouraged to do that in terms of curriculum. And so we do that a lot, whether it’s in the kindergarten space or in the back spaces,” said Alli.
The TDSB said it is investing $100 million, with funding help from the federal government, on ventilation-related upgrades.
“First of all, we’ve checked all our mechanical ventilation systems,” Puccetti said.
“That’s something that we typically do anyway over the summer. But we’ve done it again this summer to make sure they’re operating the way they should be. We’re changing the filters more frequently so school will start with new filters in the mechanical system. We operate the systems two hours before the start of school and two hours after school so that way we get more air exchanges throughout the building over the course of the day.”
She suggested families visit the TDSB website for more ventilation information including a breakdown per school.
Experts say improved ventilation is critical to reducing transmission of the virus, especially with students under the age of 12 returning to the classroom unvaccinated.
“One of the things about these units is that they are a filtration device so no matter what condition in the classroom, the air is going to be filtered through this HEPA filter over the course of the day,”Puccetti said, adding, “Masking is important, handwashing is important, enhanced cleaning, doing the screening and opportunities for kids to spend time outside.”
Jessica Lyons, member of the Ontario Parent Action Network and a mother of two school-aged children said she has a list of concerns, including school ventilation.
“Ventilation factors hugely in parents’ minds now, because we’ve seen the clear science that COVID is airborne, and what that means is that the air needs to be our focus in terms of cleaning and reducing transmission,” she said.
Lyons has been calling for smaller class sizes plus paid sick leave, among other things, to improve safety for students during the pandemic.
“I’m very pleased that the TDSB has managed to put a HEPA unit in every classroom or every learning space, regardless of whether there is also mechanical ventilation in the school. But that’s just one school board. And again, these metrics aren’t transparently being revealed … what we need is to know who has been consulted, who has been brought in to do these assessments,” she added.
For schools with mechanical ventilation systems, Lecce said it is expected that boards regularly maintain them by using the highest-grade filters and for schools without mechanical ventilation to use HEPA units.
The TDSB will be providing HEPA units regardless of whether or not the school has a mechanical ventilation system.
“It’s a sort of double protection approach … we have buildings of various ages that were designed with mechanical systems that may be from a different era and a different code … so we may not be achieving the kind of air exchange we want so this is seen as double protection,” said Alli.