In retrospect, says health minister, Quebec should have tackled school ventilation this summer

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé admitted on Wednesday that the government should have tackled the issue of school ventilation during the summer.

The minister said so in an interview with 98.5 FM, agreeing with host Paul Arcand when he suggested that the issue of air quality in schools should have been addressed long before the start of the second wave of COVID-19.

“In the priorities that public health had set, that wasn’t there during the summer. Should it have been?” Dubé said. “In hindsight, you’re surely right.”

At first, Dubé defended himself during the interview by asserting that his government had inherited an underfunded education network.

He also reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) had only recently alerted world leaders to the risks of aerosol transmission of COVID-19.

“We didn’t think it was so urgent,” said Dubé. “I asked public health to revise their opinion, because until now (they) had not asked us to have specific measures for ventilation.”

EMSB READY TO BUY AIR PURIFIERS

Also on Wednesday, the English Montreal School Board said it is only waiting on an official directive to buy air purifiers -- but it expects that directive soon.

“We are waiting for an announcement from the Ministry of Education and the recommendations from Santé Publique regarding the purchase and installation of air purifiers in our school and centre buildings,” said EMSB Chair Joe Ortona.

“Until then we will continue to use our mechanical or natural ventilation systems," he said. "We have always had to air out our classrooms by opening windows and that will not change, even with air purifiers.’

Mr. Ortona said the EMSB is acting prudently and said he expects an announcement "shortly." In the meantime, the board has begun a report assessing the ventilation needs of its buildings.

Another school board official warned against the idea that installing new equipment will be a cure-all.

“The presence of air purifiers in classrooms does not imply that we can dismiss the necessary distancing and sanitary measures presently being applied in all of our facilities," said EMSB interim director Evelyne Alfonsi.

OPPOSITION PARTIES ASK FOR SPEED

The opposition parties have slammed the inaction of the Legault government on school air quality. They’ve pointed out that more than a quarter of Quebec’s COVID-19 outbreaks are happening in schools.

At a press briefing on Wednesday, the Parti Québécois spokesperson for education, Véronique Hivon, urged the government to adopt a “clear plan for ventilation, urgently, of course,” including the purchase of portable air purifiers.

“Yesterday, to our dismay…we heard Mr. Dubé say that he was setting up a committee that was going to make recommendations to him within a few weeks on the issue of ventilation,” Hivon said, “as if we hadn't known for months that this was a problem in Quebec, as if we hadn't known for months that winter was coming in Quebec and that the solution of opening the windows was not going to hold up.”

Québec Solidaire tabled a motion in the National Assembly demanding the installation of CO2 detectors in all classes of the province, as they can measure the air quality of the premises, as well as the installation of air purifiers in all schools or wherever deemed necessary.

“Schools in Quebec are old, very old, and they often have poor ventilation systems,” said Quebec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. “Telling teachers to open the windows is not a solution…Opening the windows at minus 20 will not be enough.”

“Yes or no, will the government order portable air filters?” asked Liberal MP Marwah Rizqy from her seat at the Blue Room in the National Assembly.

The Minister of Education, Isabelle Charest, replied that "we will wait for the recommendations of public health to put in place the means that are necessary to ensure the health and safety of our students.”

What is being done about the ventilation systems in Quebec schools? CJAD 800 Radio speaks with Liveral MNA Marwah Rizqy and EMSB chair Joe Ortona

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2020.

--With files from CTV News

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