Air quality in Ontario schools

Geographic distribution of types of ventilation systems in local public schools, September 2021.
Figure 1. Geographic distribution of types of ventilation systems in local public schools, September 2021.

Background

The Ontario government kicked off the new year by no longer requiring public schools and daycare centres to report cases of COVID-19 among students or staff members. With this decision, the government is now free of its early commitment to publish province-wide daily case reports from two organizations that play vital roles in the lives of children and their families.

Advocates for freedom of information are stepping forward to fill the void that the government has created in the midst of a pandemic. The job is labour-intensive and, therefore, efforts will likely need to be more localized.

Our contribution will be to focus on developments in four contiguous Public Health Units:1On a personal note, I now live in Prince Edward County and was born and raised in Peterborough.

This week, we also learned that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, has admonished the Acting Medical Officer of Health for Niagara Region Public Health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, about his recent orders to District School Boards in the Niagara region. Here’s Dr. Moore’s first concern:

Weekly classroom CO2 monitoring

Memos provide for the weekly monitoring of CO2 levels in all classrooms and installation of HEPA filters in classrooms with a reading over 800 ppm. We are not aware at present of any correlation between CO2 levels and viral transmission. You have acknowledged you are not aware of specific improvements in school ventilation already made to HVAC systems increasing to MERV-13 standards nor are you aware of the number of HEPA filters currently in place in schools across the Niagara region. Additionally, you have placed an expectation on the schools boards to cover the costs of any HEPA filters that would be required and, if they are not able to do so, that your [Board of Health] may cover costs if they cannot despite your not having discussed this with your BOH.

Dr. Hirji is reportedly unfazed.

Dr. Moore faults Dr. Hirji for his ignorance of two measures that the Ontario government has already taken to address his concerns:

  1. Upgrades to HVAC systems to meet MERV-13 standards
  2. Installation of HEPA filters

We happened to be looking into some of the questions raised in this exchange and wanted to lay the groundwork for answering them – at least close to home.

Objectives

While we research and await additional information from local District School Boards and Public Health Units, our short-term objective is help the public become better informed, by providing readier access to some basic resources:

  • The Ontario government’s investments and guidelines for improving ventilation and air filtration in public schools
  • Local District School Boards’ work plans and ventilation reports, as of September 2021
  • Machine-readable dataset of local school-level ventilation reports
  • Basic summary of types of ventilation systems and portable classrooms in local schools
  • Interactive map of types of ventilation systems in local schools

Our medium-term objective is to obtain and analyze essential details of the current state, operation, maintenance, cost-efficiency, and health-promoting effectiveness of (upgraded or not) ventilation and air filtration systems in local public schools.

Getting ventilation and air filtration right in complex human environments like public schools is a non-trivial challenge. In Nova Scotia, for example, engineers are unsurprised that their provincial government didn’t get it perfect the first time around. To coin a phrase, the discussion must be about fixing the problem, not fixing (or avoiding) blame.

Now that the Ontario government has put a stop to publishing daily reports of COVID-19 cases in schools, it’s become far more difficult to answer some of the most critical of these questions. We can only do our best with what we have.

Ventilation & air filtration in local schools

Table 1 identifies the nine Public/Separate/English/French District School Boards that intersect with our four local Public Health Units:

Table 1. Public/Separate/English/French District School Boards intersectingwith our four local Public Health Units.
Public Health Unit Public Board(s) Separate Board(s)
Haliburton, Kawartha & Pine Ridge District PHU Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB

Trillium Lakelands DSB

Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland & Clarington Catholic DSB
Hastings & Prince Edward PHU Hastings & Prince Edward DSB

CÉP de l’Est de l’Ontario

CSDC du Centre-Est de l’Ontario

Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic DSB
Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington PHU Limestone DSB

CÉP de l’Est de l’Ontario

CSDC du Centre-Est de l’Ontario

Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic DSB
Peterborough PHU Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland & Clarington Catholic DSB

CS catholique MonAvenir

For brevity’s sake, we will refer to the 276 mainstream public schools within the boundaries of these Public Health Units as “local schools”.2The count of 276 local schools reflects the addition of the Ecole Early Years Campus in the Algonquin & Lakeshore CDSB (see below).

Since 2020-21, the Ontario government has funded District School Boards to upgrade schools’ ventilation and air filtration systems and has issued various directives, including:

As a result, District School Boards were required to publish board-level work plans and standardized school-level ventilation reports, ahead of students returning to school this year (Table 2).

Table 2. Local District School Boards’ work plans and school-level ventilation reports, September 2021.
  Work Plans Ventilation Reports
1 Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB XLSX
2 Trillium Lakelands DSB XLSX
3 Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland & Clarington CDSB XLSX
4 Hastings & Prince Edward DSB PDF
5 Algonquin & Lakeshore CDSB XLSX
6 CÉP de l’Est de l’Ontario DOC
7 CSDC du Centre-Est de l’Ontario PDF
8 Limestone DSB PDF
9 CS catholique MonAvenir XLSX

The XLSX files published by five District School Boards tucked all school-level data away in a hidden worksheet – inaccessible to many users.

The Ontario government’s standardized school-level ventilation report included nine data elements; except for CÉP de l’Est de l’Ontario, the Boards’ school-level ventilation reports included (nearly) all of them (Table 3).

Table 3. Local District School Boards’ compliance with Ontario’s standardized ventilation reports, September 2021.
DATA ELEMENT BOARDS

1, 2, 3, 5, 9

BOARDS

4, 7, 8

BOARD

6

SCHOOL_FACILITY
BUILDING_ID
VENTILATION_TYPE
VENTILATION_ASSESSED
RUNNING_VENTILATION_SYSTEMS_LONGER
HIGHER-GRADE_FILTERS_INSTALLED
INCREASED_FRESH_AIR_INTAKE
HEPA_UNITS_IN_PORTABLES_PRN
NUMBER_STANDALONE HEPA_UNITS

The geographic boundaries of our nine District School Boards don’t align perfectly with our four Public Health Units. When we discard ventilation reports for schools outside the boundaries of our Public Health Units, we are left with ventilation reports for 256 local schools.

We combined the standardized school-level ventilation reports with our Local mainstream public schools dataset to create and publish a Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset as a machine-readable Tab Separated Value (TSV) file.

Data anomolies

We had to deal with a handful of anomalies in the Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset.

First, three schools (Dr M S Hawkins Senior School in the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB; Module de l’Acadie and Module Vanier in the Limestone DSB) in the Local mainstream public schools dataset had no ventilation report associated with them. We included these schools in the Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset and recorded all of their data elements as “Missing”.

Second, one school (Ecole Early Years Campus) missing from the Local mainstream public schools dataset was included in the Algonquin & Lakeshore CDSB’s ventilation report. The Board’s website notes: “In 2018, Ecole catholique Cathedral Early Years Campus was established. The Early Years Campus is a temporary move in an effort to alleviate a growing population at Ecole catholique Cathedrale.” We have added this school (with SCHOOL_ID=”999999″) to the Local mainstream public schools dataset and included it in the Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset.

Finally, one school (St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School in the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington CDSB) has a separate ventilation report for its Tech Building; we exclude this report from the Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset.

Summary

Table 4 indicates that only 60% of local schools have full mechanical ventilation; 20% have partial mechanical ventilation; 20% have no mechanical ventilation and rely solely upon natural ventilation/exhaust.

Table 4. Distribution of types of ventilation systems in local public schools, September 2021.
VENTILATION_TYPE N %
Mechanical Ventilation 152 59.4%
Partial Mechanical Ventilation 53 20.7%
Non-Mechanical Ventilation (Natural Ventilation / Exhaust Only) 48 18.8%
Missing 3 1.2%
Total 256

It’s impossible to correlate a school’s age with its type of ventilation system. The earliest opening date entered for any school in the Ontario government’s Public school contact information dataset is September 1, 1969, implying incorrectly that the oldest public school in the province is only 53 years old.

Table 5 indicates that about 40% of local schools have portable classrooms, all of them apparently equiped with HEPA units.

Table 5. Distribution of HEPA filtration units in portable classrooms in local public schools, September 2021.
HEPA_UNITS_IN_PORTABLES_PRN N %
Yes 98 38.3%
No 0 0.0%
NA 151 59.0%
Missing 7 2.7%
Total 256

Mapping

Before we can map the state of ventilation and air filtration in our local schools, we need to deal with another data anomaly. Twenty-one local public schools were issued no ventilation reports of their own, but seemed to be subsumed in ventilation reports issued for schools with which they shared facilities (eg Crestwood Secondary School and Crestwood Intermediate School). We included both reported-on and shared-facilities schools in the Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset, copying the ventilation report from the former to the latter. The result is a dataset of 256 + 21 = 277 local mainstream public schools. For every pair of schools, we recorded their respective SCHOOL_IDs in additional COPIED_FROM and COPIED_TO data elements in the Ventilation reports for local mainstream public schools (September 2021) dataset.

Figure 1 presents a map of ventilation systems in these local mainstream public schools. Here’s a fully interactive version of the map.

Geographic distribution of types of ventilation systems in local public schools, September 2021.
Figure 1. Geographic distribution of types of ventilation systems in local public schools, September 2021.

The number in the centre of a clusterpie indicates the number of schools in that vicinity. The green slice of a clusterpie represents the proportion of schools in the vicinity with full mechanical ventilation; the violet slice represents schools with partial mechanical ventilation; and the orange slice represents schools with no mechanical ventilation.

You may pan/explore different parts of the map by dragging its image with your mouse. You may zoom in/out by clicking on the +/- widget in the topleft corner of the screen. Clicking on a clusterpie zooms in to reveal smaller groups of schools in the vicinity. Ultimately, the map will display single icons corresponding to individual schools. Clicking on a single icon will display additional information (e.g. school name, program, location, District School Board, and Public Health Unit).

Next steps

We are writing our four local Medical Officers of Health, asking them to adopt Dr. Hirji’s approach and order District School Boards to take additional measures to promote the health and safety of students and staff in our local public schools.

Public Health Unit Medical Officer of Health Contact Info
Haliburton, Kawartha & Pine Ridge District Dr. Natalie Bocking info@hkpr.on.ca

1-866-888-4577 ext 5020

Hastings & Prince Edward Dr. Ethan Toumishey (A) Maureen Hyland, Communications Specialist,
mhyland@hpeph.ca
Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington Dr. Piotr Oglaza https://www.kflaph.ca//Modules/email/emailattachment.aspx

1-800-267-7875

Peterborough Dr. Thomas Piggott c/o mbryan@peterboroughpublichealth.ca

705-743-1000

We are writing the nine local Chairs of District School Boards, asking them to disclose essential information about the installation, operation and maintenance of ventilation and air filtration systems in their public schools – and to undertake and disclose the results of monitoring the air quality in their classrooms.

District School Board Chair Contact Info
Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB Diane Lloyd diane_lloyd@kprdsb.ca
Trillium Lakelands DSB Bruce Reain bruce.reain@tldsb.on.ca
Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland & Clarington CDSB Braden Leal jleal@pvnccdsb.on.ca
Hastings & Prince Edward DSB Shannon Binder information@hpedsb.on.ca
Algonquin & Lakeshore CDSB Tom Dall dall@alcdsb.on.ca
CÉP de l’Est de l’Ontario Jacinthe Marcil jacinthe.marcil@cepeo.on.ca
CSDC du Centre-Est de l’Ontario Johanne Lacombe lacombej@ecolecatholique.ca
Limestone DSB Suzanne Ruttan ruttansu@limestone.on.ca
CS catholique MonAvenir Geneviève Grenier ggrenier@cscmonavenir.ca

 

We are writing to ask all of these leaders to resume and enhance the daily public reporting of COVID-19 cases in public schools.

Credit

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If you use this work, please credit Paul Allen, paul@hartallen.com.