Feel good about your information and become a local news champion today

Calgary public schools reduce outdoor air intake to manage poor air quality

Calgary public schools are minimizing the outdoor fresh air intake as students headed back to school after the Labour Day weekend on Tuesday.

They sent a note out to parents and posted to their news centre how they’re handling Calgary’s poor air quality in city schools.

As of 11 a.m., the Environment Canada observed conditions showed Calgary with an Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) rating of 8, which is still considered high risk. The air quality in Calgary fluctuated between 7 and 10 throughout the Labour Day weekend as wildfires continued to burn in Alberta, BC and the Northwest Territories.

According to the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) post, if the AQHI stays at 7 or above, they are asking schools to consider postponing or cancelling outdoor activities during lunch or recess. They also want to limit the level of exertion if outdoor activities continue.

They also want fire drills limited until the AQHI is six or lower, and to consult with facility operators if indoor air quality deteriorates.

As of Tuesday, CBE schools’ centrally-operated heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems were being adjusted to minimize fresh air exchange until the special air quality statement is lifted.

“For schools with HVAC systems that are not centrally controlled, facility operators will manually adjust the system to minimize fresh air exchange,” read the statement.

According to the Environment Canada forecast, Tuesday could reach an AQHI of 9 but then retreat back to a moderate risk of between 4 and 5 for Tuesday evening and Wednesday.

Confluence of air quality events

Amanda Hu has been tracking the air quality issues in Calgary schools going back through the handling of Covid-19. She said it's a tricky situation right now. The CBE had been increasing outdoor airflow to ensure better air exchange in schools to deal with indoor respiratory illnesses. Now, they're restricting that fresh air to deal with outdoor pollutants.

"You're mitigating the risk of the outdoor air, but then you are not addressing the risk of the indoor air," she told LWC.

"When there's COVID cases rising and respiratory illness are a real concern, then there's not really any steps being taken to mitigate that illness."

Hu said that even if outdoor air intakes are closed, the wildfire-polluted air is still making its way into Calgary schools – either through opening doors, the limited air that is coming in or other ventilation.

"All the kids and students are just breathing the same air, which is recirculated over and over again. So, there's no air to reduce the amount of virus floating in the air. It just all builds up inside and then people are breathing that in," she said.

While Environment Canada is predicting a moderating air quality in the coming days, Hu said this is a challenge that's been going on since fires first started in May. She said the solution goes back to what she's been advocating for all along–HEPA filters in classrooms.

The CBE has said on numerous occasions that they've upgraded filters and that all schools are mechanically ventilated to maximize air exchange.

“Portable air cleaning devices are generally recommended when no mechanical ventilation exists, which means when windows are the only ventilation. As our schools are mechanically ventilated, we have not installed these portable devices," the CBE previously told LWC.

Hu said Edmonton public schools added HEPA filtration and Calgary should too. It would help when you're dealing with this confluence of air quality events.

"That would be kind of the thing that that the (CBE) school board should be looking at doing," she said.