Amalia Zurzolo is wrestling with the decision to send her children to school in September, over concerns the virus that causes COVID-19 could be wafting through the classroom.
Her two children will be entering grade 1 and 4, respectively, at Laura Secord School and by all accounts will not be immunized against COVID-19, as currently available vaccines are only approved for people age 12 and up.
"A year ago, we were worried about the older generation and how they were going to do, and now I feel the focus needs to be on these kids," Zurzolo said.
"Everybody else is vaccinated and they’re not, and we’re putting them in an unventilated space," she said, adding she’s unsure whether the century-old Winnipeg school has sufficient air exchange to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread.
"I would like to know that there’s some kind of process around every classroom meeting at least some minimum standards for ventilation. That would be huge to give me peace of mind."
Public health experts agree frequent air circulation and exchange, combined with improved air filtration, can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in indoor settings.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, COVID-19 outbreaks have been linked to poor ventilation "where the virus appears to have been transmitted through aerosol production from infected individuals that became concentrated in the air over time."
The agency noted adjusting ventilation is not likely to reduce transmission between people in close proximity.
Tamara Kuly, a mom of two and a member of the parent advisory committee for Luxton School in Winnipeg, said she has yet to see any plans related to the return to school in September, and is desperate for information to help her plan, adding her trust in government has "evaporated."
"Now with the Delta variants and the fact that the governments is telling us that people who are most at risk are those who are unvaccinated, I am starting to get worried," Kuly said. "We don’t know what that’s going to look like here.
"In six weeks, school will restart and virtually every student in Grade 6 and younger will be unvaccinated, that's tens of thousands of students, our kids, going back into indoor environments with varying standards of ventilation with still no plan, no funds to make needed upgrades."
On Thursday, Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew called on government to implement a standard for air quality in schools and to check whether classroom environments meet that standard.
"We’ve got six weeks. I would like to have it happen immediately rather than a sequential thing," Kinew said. "But the science is clear — the province should be able to set a provincewide standard very, very quickly and immediately allocate resources over the next month-and-a-half to ensure those ventilation systems can be installed or at least those kinds of retrofits can begin."
Kinew pointed to a recent advertising campaign promoting public engagement on Bill 64 (the Better Education Starts Today strategy) as evidence funding is available for ventilation improvements in schools. The Progressive Conservative government has spent about $150,000 on advertising for the proposed legislation.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Education said last year, $12.3 million was spent on upgrades to ventilation at eight schools, and divisions reported spending approximately $790,000 on ventilation operation and maintenance costs. Funding came from the $185-million Safe Schools Fund.
"These operational approaches to ventilation systems were as a result of the guidance provided by public health specific to improving the air quality in schools, including the need to have ventilation systems operating more frequently than usual, duct cleaning, purchase of filters, etc.," the spokesperson said.
The province's Restoring Safe Schools plan states, where possible, HVAC systems should maintain maximum CO2 concentrations at 800-1,000 parts per million in occupied areas.
For this school year, six additional ventilation upgrade projects on the province's books, estimated to cost $9.5 million. In late May, Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced $58 million in new funding for the 2021-22 school year to be put toward pandemic-related costs.
A request for comment from Cullen was not immediately returned Thursday.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.