Three completed school ventilation projects touted by the Manitoba government as part of its efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 had been planned before the pandemic began, a search of provincial records showed.
When asked last month what work was being done to improve ventilation in Manitoba schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Minister Cliff Cullen pointed to 14 projects set to finish between this year and summer 2023.
Of those, three projects have already been completed, and a search of provincial requests for proposals showed that all had been planned before the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the province.
The number of Manitoba schools set to get major ventilation upgrades over the next couple of years doesn’t reflect the need many old buildings have and the threat posed by an increasingly airborne coronavirus, according to one medical microbiologist.
“I think prior to COVID-19, there just wasn’t the same level of focus on the importance of ventilation in schools,” said Philippe Lagace-Wiens, an assistant professor at U of M’s department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases.
Since the start of the pandemic, much has been learned about how the coronavirus can be spread through aerosols indoors. Projects planned before the pandemic started might not meet current needs, Lagace-Wiens said.
“I think they probably do need to, at the very least, be reviewed for the new reality that we were dealing with as COVID-19.”
In September, Lagace-Wiens joined about a dozen other doctors in signing a letter urging the provincial government to do more to keep facilities, such as schools, safe.
The letter says Manitoba needs to urgently evaluate and remediate ventilation and filtration systems in all of Manitoba’s more than 800 schools.
“These 14 [school ventilation] projects over the next several years, it kind of reflected the importance of it pre-pandemic,” said Lagace-Wiens.
Requests for more projects
Funding for those 14 projects adds up to $20.4 million. Another $40 million has been set aside for school divisions to use on other health and safety improvements, which could include other ventilation and filtration projects, a spokesperson for the province said in a statement.
Two of the projects completed this year are in the Louis Riel School Division — an air handling unit replacement at College Jeanne-Sauve worth $130,000, and a $2 million steam system and unit ventilator replacement at Glenwood school.
The third completed project is another steam system and unit ventilator replacement, also worth $2 million, at Salisbury Morse Place School in the River East-Transcona School Division.
A spokesperson for the Louis Riel School Division the upgrade at Glenwood school will allow it to draw in more fresh air without the risk of freezing heating coils in the winter.
Several major ventilation upgrades were completed at College Jeanne-Sauve between January and September this year.
The new air handling unit will pump 3,000 cubic feet per minute of fresh air into the schools hallways, and from there into the classrooms, the spokesperson said. The division also replaced the blower motors for the music and guitar classrooms with larger horsepower and higher RPMs to ensure proper air exchanges.
The division also submitted a request for capital project funding to the province in January 2021. It includes requests for direct digital control systems for 27 schools in the division, which would allow direct control of a building’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems from a central point.
A contractor was hired to measure air exchange rates per hour in classrooms, starting with music rooms.
“Based on the updated guidelines released by the National Association for Music Education for music education classrooms, a minimum of three air exchanges per hour should be used,” the spokesperson for the school division said in a statement.
Air quality experts have said schools should aim to achieve the equivalent of five to six air exchanges per hour to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms.
Major projects take years
Matthew Froese, a Winnipeg-based mechanical engineer working in building commissioning, says current building standards meet the requirements to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Many older buildings, however, need major upgrades that can be expensive and disruptive to complete. The firm he works for has advised on a number of school construction projects.
“When we build new schools, we build them very well, but we also have a lot of existing buildings that were built to whatever the standards were at the time, and those standards have changed,” Froese said.
“Ventilation is usually sort of on the back burner.”
While major ventilation system upgrades can take years to complete, Froese said there is a lot school divisions can do, such as installing portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in rooms that don’t have sufficient air flow.
Scientists studying the virus that causes COVID-19, particularly the delta variant, have found that it transmits through airborne aerosols much more easily than originally thought early on during the pandemic, microbiologist Lagace-Wiens said.
Any projects planned before the pandemic should be reassessed to make sure they still do the job of cleaning the air students and school staff breathe, he said.