Okanagan schools spent just a fraction of COVID-19 federal aid money on improving building ventilation. Instead, opting for enhanced cleaning measures and extra staffing.
The Ministry of Education provided a spreadsheet to Global News showing how each B.C. school district spent its first allotment of federal funding from September to the end of December to improve COVID-19 infection control measures.
In the Okanagan’s largest school district (Central Okanagan), officials spent half of the $4.1 million on learning resources and supports; hiring 30 new teachers, 10 custodians, and 28 support staff.
Of the $1.8 million spent on health and safety, just $20,000 went towards HVAC/ventilation improvements. The district opted to spend money on enhanced cleaning, hand hygiene, barriers and space adaptations, health and safety training, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
The Vernon school district spent $760,000 of its $1.5 million on hiring more staff and additional substitute teachers to address an increase in short-term sick leave, the document stated.
Vernon school officials spent $403,000 on health and safety, with the largest chunk going towards improving air quality ($125,000). The district also spent money on enhanced cleaning, hand hygiene, and PPE, purchasing 37,000 disposable face masks.
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Okanagan Skaha, which encompasses the communities of Penticton and Summerland, spent nearly half its $1.1 million on health and safety, but zero went towards improving ventilation.
Instead, the district spent money $300,000 on enhanced cleaning, while also dedicating funding to hand hygiene, health and safety training, and PPE.
Twenty-one new custodians were hired in Okanagan-Skaha, 700 hand sanitizer stations were purchased, as well as 12,770 disposable masks and 20 electrostatic sprayers/foggers.
Doug Gorcak, director of facilities in SD 67, noted ‘several roadblocks’ with upgrading air systems to MERV 13 filters, the recommended rating by the federal government.
“The first issue was availability of MERV 13 products, where two suppliers indicated that it would take some time to get access to the product due to the sudden global demand,” he said in a December report to the board of education.
“The suppliers also spoke about the sudden spike in cost for the raw material causing issues for clients. Additionally, moving to MERV 13 filters would require some re-engineering to ductwork to allow for the thicker filter,” Gorcak wrote.
He said after considering cost, timing, and availability, the facilities department decided to continue using the MERV 8 filters and adjust all ventilation systems to increase the amount of fresh air entering the building.
Research shows while the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is most frequently spread when people are in close contact with others indoors, it can also be spread through the air.
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“Reports of outbreaks in settings with poor ventilation suggest that infectious aerosols were suspended in the air and that people inhaled the virus,” the Government of Canada says on its website.
The federal government said to maximize ventilation, HVAC systems should be in good working order.
“Drawing as much fresh air as possible from outside will decrease the concentration of aerosols that may be suspended in the air, and reduce the chances of SARS-CoV-2 spread if those aerosols happen to contain the virus.”
The Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union is calling for improvements to air quality in school settings.
“Certain filters aren’t available, certain systems won’t accept upgraded filters for increased HVAC safety, and there just isn’t enough money or time to instantly replace an older system,” president Kevin Epp said.
He added that a mandatory mask policy, better physical distancing, and more remote learning issues would offset any issues caused by antiquated ventilation systems.
“I think teachers and other workers in education deserve the same level of safety that workers in all parts of the economy can have at this time,” he said.
“They are not really addressing the situation at KSS as seriously as it is,” parents grow increasingly concerned as more COVID cases are announced at Kelowna Secondary School.
There are 33 active COVID-19 school exposures currently in the Interior Health region.
Province-wide, just $5 million of the $35 million of federal aid spent on health and safety was used to upgrade ventilation systems in schools.
The Ministry of Education said over the first phase of funding, 41 districts upgraded their HVAC systems to increase air exchange, and 24 districts upgraded their HVAC systems to MERV-13 filters. Districts also upgraded 45,283 air or ventilation filters, a spokesperson said.
The federal government has committed another $122 million for B.C. schools and the grant is expected to arrive at the end of the month.
Note: School districts also used funding from the Ministry of Education’s $45.6 million Covid-19 relief investment in August and their annual operating funds to enhance safety measures. Neither of those funding streams is captured in the spreadsheet – just federal funding.
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