Manitoba spending $6.8M to upgrade ventilation in schools

With concerns of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms, the provincial government is promising $6.8 million to address the problem, though some advocates say this has been long overdue.

On Thursday, Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced the province is putting the money towards ventilation improvements in schools, with priority being given to schools in areas with higher levels of community transmission of COVID-19.

"There will be assessments done of the school itself, the mechanical needs, and obviously we are going to be targeting some of the high-risk areas," Cullen said.

The minister said the province has provided guidance on proper ventilation practices to school divisions.

“Given the rising number of cases in some regions, this investment will enable schools to follow up on changes recommended by experienced professionals as one way to further reduce the spread of COVID-19," he said in a news release.

The ventilation improvements will include purchasing stand-alone filters for classrooms and other projects that don’t require construction.

Manitoba Education and Manitoba Central Services will review the applications and prioritize based on mechanical need and public health risk.

Cullen estimated the money will go to improve ventilation in around 6,000 classrooms. He said the money will need to be used by the end of this budget year, in March 2022.

INVESTMENT IS LONG OVERDUE, ADVOCATES SAY

Dawnis Kennedy pulled her nine-year-old son out of in-class learning when the pandemic hit, opting for virtual learning at home.

She said she wants to see improvements in the ventilation in her son's classroom before sending him back to in-person learning.

"I won't put him in until I know that it is a good decision," Kennedy said.

"We will be working to get a CO2 monitor in the classroom so that we know what we are walking into so that he can make an informed decision and we can make an informed decision about how safe the school is."

Kennedy—who has been lobbying with Safe September MB—said the investment should have come months ago.

"We've been asking for these supplies for a year and half, we are more than three months overdue. We've sent more than 1,000 emails to the province and to school divisions, asking for the safe school supply list," Kennedy said.

The opposition also has questions.

"They are coming to it late. We are 20 months into a pandemic. Surely this could have been done earlier," said Nello Altomare, Manitoba NDP's education critic.

Lauren Hope—a co-founder of Safe September MB—said she welcomes the investment in classrooms, but is skeptical.

"The metrics they put out for dispersing that money are vague and tend to make me believe that maybe the money won't go to where it is most needed," Hope told CTV News.

Cullen noted that Thursday’s announcement comes the day after the province began vaccinating kids in the five to 11 age group.

“We expect this will have a huge effect on schools by helping us achieve our shared goal of keeping schools safe and open,” he said.

In August, the Manitoba government provided formal guidelines on ventilation in schools requiring them to inspect their systems and seek help from heating, ventilation and air conditioning experts.

VENTILATION WORK IN WINNIPEG SCHOOL DIVISIONS

In Winnipeg, the Seven Oaks School Division says it upgraded some controls and purchased stand alone HEPA filtration units for smaller spaces where there are ventilation issues.

The Winnipeg School Division said it is using the existing ventilation system to maximize outside air, and is able to maintain CO2 levels with the existing system. It said it will be reviewing and testing as the weather gets colder out, and is in the process of applying for the provincial government funding to meet the division's needs.

The Louis Riel School Division said it has spent more than $97,000 on ventilation so far this school year. This included hiring an HVAC group to measure air exchange rates per hour in music rooms, and make any necessary repairs or maintenance. It said part of this money was also used to install CO2 sensors and change filters every three months.

The St. James-Assiniboia School Division said it has upgraded ventilation at Westwood Collegiate, and replaced the windows at John Taylor Collegiate. It said it regularly replaces filters and keeps up with ventilation system maintenance.

"Our schools' existing HVAC system operations have been adjusted to provide as much ventilation and longer run times as possible based on outdoor air temperature conditions," a division spokesperson told CTV News.

CTV News has reached out to the remaining school divisions in Winnipeg.