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COVID-19 in classrooms: Here's how ventilation looks in New Westminster schools

New West school district ventilation reports show just one school, Skwo:wech Elementary, that's not operating with MERV-13 filters
Skwo:wech Elementary
Skwo:wech Elementary School, which is nearing the end of its days, is the lone school in the New Westminster school district not operating with MERV-13 filters in the face of COVID-19.

Skwo:wech Elementary is the lone school in the New Westminster district that’s not operating with MERV-13 air filters.

The B.C. Ministry of Education, as part of its COVID-19 health and safety guidance for schools, has recommended that all school facilities install MERV-13 filters, where possible.

“We’re quite proud of the fact that the lion’s share of our schools do have that filtration system,” said district secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham.

Ketcham said New Westminster has benefited from being a smaller school district, with relatively few schools – meaning it’s able to rotate through those schools to upgrade systems on a more frequent basis than larger districts can.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had undergone a fairly substantial refresh over a fairly quick cycle to provide enhancements or upgrades to mechanical systems, which encompass ventilation,” she said.

Ketcham’s comments came at the school board’s Sept. 14 operations committee meeting during a report on ventilation systems in schools. Ventilation has become a talking point in discussions around school safety due to growing concerns over airborne transmission of the Delta variant.

The New Westminster school district recently posted a series of ventilation reports, based on a Ministry of Education template. The reports show how schools are meeting one ministry “requirement” and four “recommendations.”

The requirement, for regular inspection and maintenance of HVAC systems, is being met at all school sites. The recommendations, however, are being met at different levels depending upon the school facility.

Here’s a breakdown of how the recommendations look in School District 40 schools:



The reports show that MERV-13 filters are in use in the ventilation systems at New Westminster Secondary School, the three middle schools (Fraser River, Glenbrook and Queensborough) and seven of the district’s eight elementary schools (Connaught Heights, F.W. Howay, Herbert Spencer, Lord Kelvin, Lord Tweedsmuir, Qayqayt and Queen Elizabeth), as well as the Hume Park learning centre (which houses the Home Learners Program).

Skwo:wech Elementary School, however, is using MERV-8 filters, as a retrofit was not possible due to the age of the building. The school (formerly Richard McBride Elementary) was first built in 1929, and a replacement building is now nearing completion. The ventilation report notes that the new school facility, with more advanced ventilation systems, is set to open in January 2022.

Ketcham said the district will be setting aside some of its provincial COVID restart funding to ensure that MERV-13 and other filters are being replaced “as frequently as possible” at all sites.



“All schools have ensured that we have increased the outside air intake, and we have extended the HVAC schedule to run not only bell to bell, but beyond the school day, starting early morning with a full purge of the air in the school itself and then after school another purge as well,” Ketcham said. “The continuous air intake is ensuring a high amount of fresh air that is circulating through our school system.”

The reports show the majority of school sites have increased the minimum air damper for more fresh air and more air exchange and extended their HVAC schedules from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. This standard applies to Connaught Heights, F.W. Howay, Herbert Spencer, Lord Kelvin, Lord Tweedsmuir, Qayqayt, Queen Elizabeth, Fraser River, Glenbrook and Queensborough.

That leaves three exceptions.

The report for Hume Park notes that furnace dampers can not be increased.

At Skwo:wech, longer hours have been put into place: the HVAC schedule has been extended from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.

And, at the brand-new New Westminster Secondary School, the system is already programmed for 100% outside air and an extended HVAC schedule.



The reports show all school sites are managed through automated control systems, monitored by maintenance facility staff.



No other air cleaning or treatment technologies are in use at any school sites, the reports show.

This issue has come up for some discussion in the past couple of weeks, after a New Westminster parent, Gabriel Bauman, attempted to launch a GoFundMe campaign to provide stand-alone HEPA filtration units for classrooms. HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are rated as more efficient than MERV-16 filters.

(For more reading on HEPA versus MERV filtration and how it can apply to airborne viruses, check out resources from ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.)

At the Sept. 14 meeting, superintendent Karim Hachlaf reiterated the district’s stance on adding such units: “The school district’s position right now is that these air filtration units – these supplemental, portable air filtration units – are not required.”

Hachlaf said adding HEPA units could have “unintended consequences.”

“Adding unnecessary air filtration units can lead to confusion and, frankly, uncertainty and questions the commitment of our health and safety guidelines,” he said. “One of my key roles as superintendent is to ensure the health and safety of students and staff across the district, and I have every confidence that we are doing just that.”

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