New West school ventilation upgrades ready to go - when the air clears

The good news is, New Westminster schools all got upgrades over the summer to ensure that more fresh air is being brought into buildings.

The bad news is, the past week hasn’t exactly been conducive to using them.

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Upgrades to school ventilation systems were part of the New Westminster district’s work to get ready to bring students back to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bettina Ketcham, the school district’s secretary-treasurer, noted the push for better, more efficient ventilation has been a big part of the planning around COVID-19.

As part of the district’s summer work, the district was able to install CO2 sensors at its schools. Those sensors monitor the activity level in a building and bring in fresh air accordingly.

“That speaks to a level of sophistication that might be over and above what other districts are able to do, just because we’re smaller in size and have had the opportunity to make those upgrades over the last number of years,” Ketcham told trustees at the inaugural operations committee meeting of the school year, held Sept. 15 via Webex.

Among the ventilation work it did in preparation for the new year, the school district changed almost all of its filters to MERV 13-level – a level that filters out 90% of fine particulate matter, the culprit behind the air quality advisory the region has been living under since Sept. 8.

The school district also has protocols in place to have all its ventilation systems do a two-hour purge, taking in 100% outside air before school starts.

Trustee Danielle Connelly questioned how that fresh air protocol applies when the city is suffering from the air quality it’s seen this week.

Ketcham said the fresh air intake will be the regular protocol but that it hasn’t been in place this past week.

 “The air quality was just such that we couldn’t have that continuous air flow in the buildings, and it was much safer to have those ventilation systems suspended, just to prevent the poor air quality from entering our buildings,” she said.

Ketcham told trustees that, as the air quality continues to improve, the superintendent is monitoring the situation with health officials to decide when to re-engage the usual fresh air protocols.

Monday – when the air quality in New Westminster took a nosedive due to smoke from Sunday night’s Westminster Pier fire -  saw classes suspended at three district schools (Qayqayt, Queen Elizabeth and Queensborough Middle) while three others (New Westminster Secondary, Fraser River and Glenbrook) sent students home early.

Classes resumed regular operation Tuesday.

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