Premier Doug Ford’s mid-August announcement that the provincial government was allocating $50 million to pay for improved ventilation, air quality and HVAC systems in Ontario schools is so far not translating into a gold rush of work for Ontario’s mechanical construction specialists.
An Aug. 25 memorandum from Deputy Minister of Education Nancy Naylor to school board directors of education offered guidelines for the spending of the $50 million and asked that school boards “expedite the use of these funds to optimize your ventilation systems prior to the start of the school year.”
Spokespersons for two of Ontario’s largest boards indicated in statements that most current efforts are being directed to such strategies as reviewing best practices to ensure adequate air flow through classrooms including opening windows wider, running exhaust fans longer, performing frequent system inspections and keeping HVAC exhaust grills clean.
Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), noted, “The TDSB has been working over the summer to review building ventilation and filtration systems and is implementing a number of strategies to improve ventilation in our schools and increase the volume of fresh air to the maximum extent possible.”
As for major installations or retrofits, he said, “While some improvements will be possible, given the planning, design and construction involved, any large-scale projects will require months to complete.”
“It’s not so much construction,” said Tim Meana, general manager at Walsh Canada and a father of four elementary-school-age children who will attending school in the TDSB this fall. He has been advocating for school boards and the Ministry of Education to work with constructors to develop plans for school upgrades since July but says advocacy for larger improvements is now taking a back seat to near-term efforts simply to make classrooms as safe as possible before students return.
There are 4,200 schools in Ontario, a ridiculous number of schools. It is definitely not enough,
— Tim Meana
“In July we were reaching out to government officials, construction officials, local MPPs, everybody, to ask, what are you doing with the plan? And of course the provincial government kept changing its mind on the plan.
“Now it’s two or three weeks, we never stopped the discussion, but we have to it ratchet it down. We are quite involved with the school, to understand what they are fighting for. Now it is a question of how to make it as safe as possible.”
Naylor wrote, “The ministry appreciates that some of the initiatives may require additional time, but we ask that every effort is made to bring the benefits of these investments online by Thanksgiving.”
The memo said eligible expenses under the new funding included upgrading filters, purchasing portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters and recommissioning current HVAC systems to optimize air circulation and pressure.
Krista Wylie, founder of Fix Our Schools, a parent advocacy group that calls for billions in spending to improve Ontario’s schools, said many of the measures contained in the memo “likely are not achievable with the amount of provincial funding provided and the short time frame.”
The TDSB received $6.9 million in air quality funding out of the $50 million.
“There are 4,200 schools in Ontario, a ridiculous number of schools. It is definitely not enough,” said Meana.
Naylor’s memo said school boards should develop a plan that could include working with qualified persons to evaluate existing building systems, ventilation and filtration; verifying ventilation and filtration performance through commissioning and testing by qualified people; and reviewing and updating recommended maintenance measures for air handling systems including inspection and replacement of filters.
Shazia Vlahos, spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, noted the board has created an action plan to enable students to return to school safely with a section devoted to ventilation.
Vlahos said the plan to improve school ventilation includes “modification of vertical sliding windows as needed to increase the opening from four inches to 12 inches and additional filter changes to air-handling units throughout the year.”
Meana said once the rush of getting students back safely is over, discussions need to be held to plan to redevelop Ontario’s schools to achieve long-term student health. It will cost billions, he said, but the viability of the school system is at stake.
“Let’s do an analysis. Someone’s got to do a plan for all the schools, and we need the money for it,” he said, noting he would be willing to continue to rally the construction sector.
“Now is the time to do it. Let’s make a plan with deadlines. If we don’t do it, the future growth of Canada is at stake.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.