As extreme cold sets in, unions say education ministry sending mixed messages on air quality in schools

School administrators say the government is sending mixed messages over ventilation in the classroom after officials said teachers should not open their windows during class to improve air quality.

But amid a deep freeze sweeping through parts of the province, opening windows is a concern for parents, as well as staff who have to balance the comfort of their students and the concern of COVID-19 transmission.

Earlier this year, the government said teachers can open their windows when the CO2 readers — in the classrooms that have them — display a reading higher than 1,500 ppm.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge’s ministry sent out a news release Friday advising teachers to “partially” open their windows only for short periods during recess or breaks between classes to improve the air quality.

It also clarified that it is acceptable for the levels to exceed 1,500 and even 2,000 ppm in a single reading, but that it’s more important to monitor the average readings over a longer period of time.

“He’s sending mixed messages,” said Heidi Yetman, President of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT).

“This inaction of the government is causing a lot of stress inside the classroom and it’s so unfortunate that this was so mishandled. It’s actually quite unbelievable,” she added.

“Ventilation is key. This has been mishandled from the beginning. There are still classrooms without the CO2 detectors. There are many, many classrooms in the province of Quebec without mechanical ventilation. This should have been fixed a long time ago.”

Sylvain Mallette, head of the Federation autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), also shared concerns about the safety and comfort of students in class during the winter in the pandemic context.

“Since the virus is highly transmissible, how can they ask teachers to manage the temperature and manage the CO2 detectors when one contradicts the other?” he said, meaning that although opening the windows can refresh the air, that’s obviously not possible right now.

If the air quality worsens, some schools will need to install an air exchanger, the province said, adding that those that need them can have them delivered. 

With images of kids in winter coats, the unions are hoping they can resolve the issue with the government soon.

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