Podcast: As kids head back to school, parents air out ventilation concerns

Jessica Lyons of the Ontario Parent Action Network says Doug Ford's back-to-school plan is unclear on the issue of ventilation


Earlier this week, NOW politics editor Enzo DiMatteo took a look at the Ontario government’s back-to-school strategy, which seemed to fall well short of what’s needed for the province’s kids to return to the classroom.

Under the 26-page plan, elementary and high school students will return to in-person learning five days a week. Masks are mandatory for students in grades one through 12, but optional for kindergarteners. Remote learning will still be an option and extracurriculars, field trips and sports will be allowed.

However, parents and teachers groups have criticized the plan as not doing enough to curb COVID-19 spread, or spell out thresholds that would trigger a closure or allow for restrictions to lift.

In the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, Enzo and I talk to Jessica Lyons of the Ontario Parent Action Network about her organization’s attempt to get the province to deliver a better, more considered framework for safer classrooms that emphasizes ventilation.

“There is evidence on what is required to make the air safer in classrooms and in any indoor spaces [at schools],” Lyons says, “established by air quality experts. But we don’t know at all how close any of those standards are to being achieved. We don’t know if our classrooms have been assessed, we don’t know what those assessments are, we don’t know what different improvement measures have been implemented in which classrooms, and in which schools, and in which school boards.

“We don’t know what difference those improvements have made. We don’t know if we’re hitting the targets that we should be, we don’t know if we aren’t. And we don’t know who’s checking and how they’ll be monitored once schools open. So there’s a ton of questions.”

School ventilation is a major concern

OPAN’s greatest concern is ventilation, and whether classrooms and schools are being upgraded to safely circulate the air at a rate that keeps the coronavirus from spreading among kids sitting in the same room for a morning or afternoon.

“Any learning space should be having about six air changes per hour,” Lyons says. “That’s the simplest way to put it. And that can be accomplished through a combination of factors – it can be opening windows, it can be [through] a mechanical ventilation system, and it can be a HEPA filter. All of those pieces can be part of it to achieve that level. And there’s no guarantee that that is being met at all, that is not being communicated. They’re not being clear on that.”

Some individual school boards are sharing their plans – the Toronto District School Board showed off its ventilation upgrades earlier this week – but the province’s opacity isn’t sitting well with OPAN, or with Lyons.

“I’m very concerned about that, because they’ve had all the time in the world to complete this work. I was in meetings with parents from across the province in May of 2020, discussing demands around ventilation improvements, and at the time, it was slightly more reasonable to hear things like ‘Improving mechanical ventilation systems, this is like major infrastructural work, you can’t just do that. You can’t just snap your fingers.’ And at that time, the research on what impact HEPA filters actually had wasn’t clear either, because this was just brand new. It wasn’t even established that COVID was primarily airborne. Now all of those things are clear, and yet we don’t have the improvements. [It’s] not clear that the improvements have been made in the schools… there’s just no transparency on any any any level. And there is transparency in other jurisdictions.”

What about mandatory vaccinations?

Lyons also discusses the issues currently swirling around vaccination, and whether she believes it should be mandatory for eligible students to be vaccinated in order to attend in-person classes.

“We haven’t taken a position as an organization,” she says, “but I can say personally that I don’t see why not. Contingent on this vaccine being approved as safe for children, [they] should be required to have it for school, like they’re required to have [vaccinations for] chicken pox, measles, mumps, rubella. This is how our public health system functions. And there are there are always circumstances that arise where a person can opt out, but that’s different than having it be opt-in. I think an opt-out system is better.”

Listen to the entire conversation, and an interview with The Suicide Squad’s Nathan Fillion, on the latest episode of NOW What, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or streamable right here:

NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.

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