Discussions over air quality improvement in classrooms are likewise intensifying, as parents and politicians alike call for improved ventilation in schools. In Ontario, the Improving Air Quality for Children Act was recently introduced and is currently in its second reading. If passed, it would see every publicly funded school and child-care facility install carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors.
The monitors are one way of measuring the amount of clean oxygen circulating in a room. The higher the amount of CO2, the poorer the air quality in a given space. According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), classrooms should not exceed CO2 levels of more than 700 parts per million (ppm).
During the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, cleaner indoor air was highlighted as a priority by provincial and federal governments and funding was allocated to improve ventilation and filtration systems in schools.
In August 2020, Ottawa announced up to $2 billion in funding to “support provinces and territories in their efforts to ensure a safe return to school.” In Ontario, the province has invested more than $665 million to improve air quality in schools and deployed more than 100,000 HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) units, Grace Lee, a spokesperson for the Ontario Minister of Education, told the Canadian Press.
Yet, despite these large reported investments, experts and parent advocacy groups say that air quality in classrooms is still inadequate and inconsistent from school to school. In September, concerned parents in the Ontario School Safety group donated Corsi-Rosenthal (CR) Box air purifiers to the Waterloo Region District School Board after the board said that the total number of HEPA filters at schools would be reduced. Air quality measurements are usually carried out during the winter months, but results from the last school year are not encouraging. Nearly 83 per cent of schools in New Brunswick exceeded peak CO2 limits during the 2022-2023 school year. The most recent air quality reports from Quebec show that CO2 levels in nearly a quarter of classrooms were still higher than acceptable as of April 2023.
To improve air quality, experts say that classrooms should have a combination of increased ventilation and air filtration by increasing airflow, upgrading HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems with high-quality MERV 13 air filters, and using standalone HEPA filter units in individual classrooms.
But implementing many of these changes, particularly in older schools, is an expensive task. Despite large budgetary announcements, it is unclear exactly how much money has been spent to improve air quality in schools. Some experts also have raised concerns that even where appropriate filtration systems have been implemented, they may not be used effectively.
But how important is air ventilation and filtration in classrooms? Is air quality something that should be a budgetary priority for school boards and provincial and federal governments?
This is what the experts had to say.