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A classroom in Hastings Community Elementary School in Vancouver, on Sept. 2, 2020. The majority of teachers have not returned yet to prepare their classrooms for the return of students.

Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

B.C.’s school districts spent just a fraction of their first tranche of federal pandemic funding on improving the airflow in classrooms across the province this fall, instead focusing much of their infection control efforts on enhanced cleaning.

The province’s teachers say too many students and staff at British Columbia’s nearly 1,600 public schools are still at risk because of antiquated ventilation systems and windowless classrooms.

This week, the Ministry of Education provided a spreadsheet breaking down how the first $101-million in federal aid for B.C. public schools was spent from September to the end of December. More than half the money went toward learning resources – mostly adding teachers and buying new technology to assist with remote learning – but just $5-million of the $35-million spent on health and safety was used to upgrade ventilation at schools.

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The province’s 60 school districts spent almost triple that ($14.8-million) on hiring more cleaning staff and buying more supplies to enhance the cleaning at schools.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside was not available for an interview on the subject, but her spokesperson Craig Sorochan e-mailed a statement saying the first portion of funding, which was divvied up based on enrollment numbers, gave each district the flexibility to make improvements where they saw fit.

The next round of funding from Ottawa, $122-million, is expected to arrive at the end of the month. Mr. Sorochan said the Education Ministry is discussing how best to use this money with a steering committee of school trustees, the teachers’ union, the trade association for private schools and other stakeholders.

Over the past four months, 24 B.C. school districts upgraded the filters on their central heating, ventilation and cooling systems to the standard recommended by the federal government, according to the province. The money was also spent on 45,283 new air or ventilation filters, according to the spokesperson.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said she understands why many districts would be reticent to spend this money on major overhauls of school ventilation systems, given those projects can take months and run into six digits. But, much more money could have been spent on other measures, such as purchasing portable filtration machines to get better airflow in the stuffiest classrooms.

She said numerous teachers have told her they bought these units themselves, and one parent in New Westminster said they outfitted their child’s class with one.

“It is clear that there has been inadequate attention paid to ventilation,” said Ms. Mooring, who wants the province to kick in more than the $45.6-million in pandemic aid it has so far committed to the education system.

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Ms. Mooring said districts prioritized much of this first batch of federal aid toward cleaning expenses because they had been underfunded by the province for more than a decade, leaving schools without enough custodians or even enough soap to keep bathroom dispensers filled.

“There isn’t a district in the province that wasn’t impacted,” she said.

While the larger respiratory droplets blamed for most coronavirus transmission typically fall to the ground quickly, the virus can also travel on clouds of warm, moist air indoors. And, the water in these droplets evaporates quickly, leaving microscopic particles called aerosols that can move for long distances on indoor air currents – like how smoke wafts from a cigarette.

An informal Globe and Mail survey last month of 26 of the largest Canadian school boards found many are relying on teachers to open classroom windows no matter the weather. In September, when The Globe reached out to a number of teachers in B.C. concerned with ventilation, many said that was their main way to cut down on the risk posed by students returning to the classroom.

Liberal MLA Jackie Tegart, the Opposition’s education critic, said the provincial government had promised to improve ventilation in schools across the province and must do more to help improve conditions.

“What I’m hearing from teachers and parents and the public is that they’re very concerned about air quality in schools based on the latest information that we have on how COVID spreads,” Ms. Tegart said.

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She has asked the Education Minister for a more detailed breakdown of where and how ventilation has been upgraded.

“So that people can either take heart in the fact that it’s been addressed or can say, ‘We don’t think enough has been done and this needs to be a higher priority,’” she said.

B.C.’s Education Ministry maintains that coronavirus transmission rates have remained “very low” in schools, but detailed data has not been made public on how many people at how many schools have become infected.

Vancouver Coastal Health reported last week that 700 students and staff out of more than 100,000 in the region had been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the fall semester, with contact tracers determining the vast majority contracted the virus outside of school.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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