Calls for national school ventilation plan, more details on booster shots to protect vulnerable

Architecture experts who have studied air quality in NSW schools say classrooms should be fitted with carbon dioxide monitors before students return to school to check if there is enough ventilation to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Victoria has already flagged ventilation assessment, CO2 monitors and particle filters would be part of its back-to-school plan.

Victorian Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton said on Saturday that carbon dioxide monitors would be used to establish what changes need to be made in specific rooms and specific schools to reduce the potential spread of the virus.

Schools, kindergartens, restaurants, shopping centres and offices have become the epicentres of major Delta clusters in Australia, and Professor Morawska estimated that improved ventilation could reduce the number of people infected in outbreaks by around 50 per cent.

“In some locations, it would be as much as reducing by 100 per cent,” she said, adding the measure would be particularly useful in schools and childcare centres, where young children were still unable to be vaccinated.

She said the federal government had “been putting a lot of focus on vaccination, which is of course very right and very necessary” but they had been “forgetting everything else.”

The NSW Teachers Federation has now called on the NSW Department of Education to begin a clean air audit of schools and TAFEs, with the Department of Education saying it had begun a “systematic review of the suitability of all learning spaces”.

A spokesman for the department said education was working closely with NSW Health, and has begun a review of the suitability of learning spaces.

“Enhanced cleaning, hygiene supplies, face masks, staff vaccinations and school site restrictions along with functional ventilation will provide a safe setting for students when they return,” he said. There would be more advice to schools in the next few weeks on safe operations.

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Professor Geoff Hanmer from the School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney, who has looked at air quality in classrooms across four Australian cities including Sydney, said the NSW Department of Education should follow Victoria’s lead “right away”.

“Most schools are naturally ventilated, and so ventilation in those spaces depends on having windows open,” he said. “And really the only way they can make sure that ventilation is adequate is to check using a CO2 meter and make adjustments as necessary.”

Well-ventilated indoor environments have less than 800 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide.

Older schools – built in the 19th century – were designed to maximise light and airflow. Newer ones, such as the cavernous open learning spaces built over the past 10 years, rely on mechanical ventilation. “That’s not so good … in fact it’s pretty terrible as far as we can see,” said Professor Hanmer.

Air filtration will be a focus of safely reopening state schools in Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews said.

Air filtration will be a focus of safely reopening state schools in Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews said. Credit:Darrian Traynor

Recent RMIT University investigations into air quality at five schools in Victoria found that carbon dioxide climbed to levels indicative of “very poor ventilation” – up to 5000 parts per million (ppm) in classrooms,

It’s been suggested that a rough marker for dangerously poor ventilation could be CO2 rates of around 800 (ppm).

Research by UNSW professor of high performance architecture Mat Santamouris found some classrooms had CO2 of up to 4000ppm in classrooms, more than four times the recommended threshold. “I consider [carbon dioxide monitoring] almost mandatory,” he said.

In the absence of announcements from the NSW Department of Education, both Professor Hanmer and Professor Santamouris suggested P&C associations buy monitors themselves.

Asked about the needs for a nationally consistent approach to school ventilation, Deputy federal Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd said he would “leave the question about ventilation plans for education to the national cabinet”.

“The AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] of course has discussed infection control in schools and in many other areas but we’ll leave decisions about what happens in the education departments to the education departments.”

Therapeutic Goods Administration head John Skerritt said the ATAGI was closely monitoring what countries such as the United States were doing with their booster program and that a booster program would commence “at some stage”.

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“During the course of the next few weeks the role of boosters, firstly and secondly whether they should start with people who are immunocompromised, will be looked at. And then there’ll be announcements…people can be assured that even though the vaccine efficacy drops off a bit after six months or so, it is still providing good protection even after six months,” he said.

The federal government has announced the purchase of 85 million Pfizer shots for 2022-23 and 15 million Moderna vaccine booster shots for 2022, but has not yet said when the booster shot program – which is already under way in countries such as Israel and the UK – will commence.

People with disabilities are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 for a range of reasons, including immune-suppression and in the United Kingdom, 60 per cent of people who died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and November 2020 had some form of disability.

with Rachael Dexter and Jordan Baker

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