When they re-open fully in September, schools will only be able to take very basic indoor air quality precautions due to tight budget constraints despite fears over the possibility of the coronavirus spreading around poorly ventilated classrooms.
This was the message from the latest webinar hosted by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), which also heard that even opening windows to improve air change rates could pose a problem for many UK schools.
However, guest presenter Garry Ratcliffe, CEO of Kent-based Galaxy Trust, a federation of three primary schools, said there was an appetite among school leaders to start taking a longer-term, strategic approach to managing the threat of air pollution.
“Air quality was already on our radar because we noticed problems with rising traffic levels around our schools,” he told the webinar chaired by BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox. “Then the pandemic struck and it dropped right back down the priority list.”
He explained that the main focus for all schools during the pandemic had been on handwashing and ‘catch it/kill it/bin it’ to manage the risk of transmission. Many had been forced to spend precious budget on, among other things, new bins because they must all be fitted with lids, social distancing signage and on buying thousands of boxes of tissues.
Switch to full fresh air
The Department for Education guidance on schools re-opening is updated weekly and gives detailed direction on handwashing, social distancing, direction of desks etc., but has only one short paragraph on ventilation. This simply advises schools to keep systems running as normal and switch any mechanical ventilation from recirculation to full fresh air “if possible”. Alternatively, they should simply open all windows.
However, Mr Ratcliffe pointed out that at least a quarter of the windows in one of the three schools he manages could not be opened and one approach to improving ventilation in classrooms has involved propping open fire doors.
“Opening windows might be OK for September, but not in November,” he told the BESA webinar. “Also, how do we measure air quality? If there is a problem with the lighting or the heating, we notice, but there is nothing prompting me to put anything into my budget to address air quality even if we know it is bad. We don’t even monitor it.
“I am also 99% certain that the direction of airflows will not have occurred to any of my teachers when they were re-arranging their classrooms to cope with the new restrictions.”
Mr Ratcliffe explained that the total annual budget for capital expenditure at one of his schools with more than 700 pupils was just £10,000. Also, the cost of extra measures to handle the COVD-19 crisis across his trust was £140,000 of which just £40,000 can be reclaimed from the government.
Public Health England has advised people to close toilet lids when flushing to reduce the spread of the virus, but Mr Ratcliffe said that none of the toilets in his schools actually had lids.
“Schools do not have a budget for air,” said BESA ventilation hygiene group chair George Friend. “They budget for their heating and water etc, but not the cost of delivering good air quality. However, the current crisis has brought this to peoples’ attention and we should use educational establishments to educate the next generation about these things. This will help them make informed choices later in life – even about the kind of vehicle they buy.”
Douglas Booker, chief executive of National Air Quality Testing Services based at Lancaster University, said his organisation was measuring CO2 levels in 20 classrooms around the country as this can show the school management if their ventilation strategy is working or not.
“COVID-19 is a short-term challenge, but solving air quality in classrooms needs a long-term strategy and we can piggy back on things like the initiatives many schools are taking over traffic pollution,” he said. “Monitoring will be increasingly important and is now being seen as more of a priority due to the likelihood of airborne transmission of the virus.
“Opening windows and turning up ventilation systems to maximum is not a sustainable long-term strategy, particularly in light of our net zero carbon targets and the need to improve energy efficiency.”
The chair of BESA’s Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group Nathan Wood told the webinar that there was a direct link between air quality and children’s cognitive performance. Some of the schools his company supports with air quality measures remain reluctant to open windows because of the risk from outdoor pollution even those in rural locations due to potential problems with the use of pesticides by local farmers.
“Ofsted should have a role in this,” said Mr Wood. “If they published air quality ratings as part of their inspection process that would provide an incentive for schools and would form part of the decision making process for parents.”
Mr Fox concluded that the insights provided by Mr Ratcliffe should remind the building engineering industry of the need to fully understand the financial and operational challenges faced by its clients.
“This is something of a reality check for us. We must understand the restrictions schools face before offering air quality advice and possible remedial measures,” added Mr Fox.
“It also shows that ventilation remains an ‘invisible industry’, but that the COVID-19 pandemic has raised its profile. We must not miss this opportunity to drive home the message about the importance of indoor air quality.”
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