Mask removal comes too soon

Just a few days ago, a story came across my news feed out of Burnaby, BC. The headline read “250 Burnaby Classrooms still without COVID filtering HVAC systems.” The story from BurnabyNow explained that for the time being some classrooms would need to continue to rely on standalone air scrubbers as well as open doors and windows to improve air flow and combat the virus.

According to the Burnaby district’s secretary treasurer, Russell Horswill, the district upgraded all the filters in their HVAC systems, where possible, to a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 13 and increased the frequency of air circulation in classrooms. They could not, however, do this for everyone. The article wrapped up with a few comments of concern from various stakeholders, who raised red flags about teachers having to rely on these portable air scrubbers and the lack of a mask mandate for students from K-3.

As I read through the article, and pondered the concerns raised, one thought remained at the forefront of my mind:

“What the heck is a COVID filtering HVAC system”?

I make light, of course, but much as one giggles nervously at a wake. As of this Wednesday, September 15th, Nova Scotia will be stepping rather boldly into Phase 5 of its reopening plan, which will throw COVID caution to the wind. People will, metaphorically at least, be dancing in the streets, burning their masks in hand sanitizer-fuelled bon fires. By September 20th, and for the first time in a great many months, schools will be operating as if the COVID pandemic, for all intents and purposes, is over.

This is perhaps a time for great celebration, but also for some not-so-jovial concern. With the Delta variant raging and vaccination rates stalled, I must admit that my excitement about the lifting of most restrictions is somewhat restrained.

To its credit, the DoEECD has released air ventilation reports for public schools in the province. Those reports, however, only say that the systems were maintained and that they are operating as intended. There is no mention, (that I could find at least), of upgrades or COVID scrubbing. I could also find no mention of MERV rating in the provided documentation.

I am sure that somewhere, someone can see the airflow capacity of our HVAC systems, (or the MERV rating, or whatever measure is used for such things), and how that can help keep down the Delta variant in our schools. Of course, without elected school boards, the capacity of average Nova Scotians to ask such questions, and have them answered in any meaningful manner, is severely curtailed. Still, I found it interesting that a number brought forward in one jurisdiction’s attempt to reassure the public that schools were safe was conspicuously absent from another’s.

It is this inconsistency that often strikes me so soundly. To be safe from COVID 19 in Burnaby, schools need portable air scrubbers, updated HVAC systems, and mask mandates for students above grade 3. Here in Nova Scotia, air scrubbers are unnecessary, HVAC systems “operating as intended” is good enough, and as of September 20th, mask mandates will be a thing of the past.

What further accentuates the difference in these two approaches for me is that both Nova Scotia and British Columbia have about 70% of their populations vaccinated. Two different provinces, two different coasts and two very different approaches to the exact same virus.

As with everything else COVID, history will judge the success of Phase 5. If the rumour mill of social media is to be trusted, there have already been some COVID cases connected to Nova Scotia schools this fall, although there is currently no way to confirm that. Even if there were, I’m not sure knowing would make much difference. Dr. Strang and company have determined that this is what is meant by “Living with COVID”, and considering Nova Scotia’s pandemic track record so far, I am prone to trust his judgement.

That trust, however, is tempered by more than just a little trepidation.

I find myself in agreement with the view that keeping masks in place for at least the time being in schools is an advisable approach, particularly considering the lack of ventilation information being released to the general public. In the absence of vaccine mandates, masks, although annoying, are not a particularly invasive measure. As much as I look forward to seeing my students’ mask-free faces with my own eyes, (as opposed to on a computer), I am certain that day one of having 800 plus kids cramming into my school without their masks will be a bit jarring.

What could be more jarring, of course, is if we finally emerge from this long, dark tunnel only to be thrust back down into its depths by a sudden surge in COVID cases. Once we are mask-free, returning to COVID protocols, should the need arise, as has happened in PEI and New Brunswisk will be that much more deflating. I don’t even want to consider the devestation the loss of a student would bring.

Thinking we are somehow magically immune from the Delta variant seems foolhardy at best. With no real comfort to be found in our air quality results, let’s keep the protocols as they are for the time being.

Without at least masking protocols, I fear we are only marking time until we are all, once again, going to school via our computer screens.

Leave a comment

Filed under COVID-19, Education Policy, Educational commentary, Nova Scotia Education Policy, Public education