If We Can't Fix Our Schools Fast Enough, Throw The Kids Outside

They need fresh air and good ventilation and they can't get that in our old schools right now.

Forest School in Toronto
Forest School in Toronto.

City of Toronto Archives

In July we noted that there was yet more research about the coronavirus indicating that we had to fix our schools' ventilation systems fast:

And yet another study confirms that the coronavirus is airborne, even collecting on return air grilles. Dr. Shelly Miller and other building scientists have been saying this for months. So before the kids are allowed back into school, how about concentrating on building a million portable air filters, installing UVC virus killing lights in ductwork, installing new filters and fans, and cranking up the fresh air, and cleaning those grilles. We've got a month.

Now we don't have a month. So what's happening? Apparently, not much. Alexandra Feathers in STAT asks "ventilation should be part of the conversation on school reopening. Why isn’t it?" She is an epidemiologist and a mother and is questioning the plans for returning to school. She notes that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines have the same old "hygiene theater" schtick of sanitizing surfaces and wearing masks, but have almost nothing to say about ventilation.

The current CDC guidance about ventilation is as follows, “Ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.” But if opening windows or doors increases the risk of asthma, or falling out the window, the guidelines go on to advise that they should be closed. That is all the guidance has to say. It does not mention air filtration, or the fact that we have pretty good data to suggest that without addressing air filtration and circulation, the 6-feet rule does not prevent transmission indoors.
ventilation do's and don'ts
ventilation do's and don'ts. Lidia Morawska et al

Feathers then goes through the evidence that dealing with the ventilation problem is critical, quoting scientists who wrote months ago (and covered in Treehugger), concluding that "the benefits of an effective ventilation system, possibly enhanced by particle filtration and air disinfection, for contributing to an overall reduction in the indoor airborne infection risk, are obvious." But it is all being ignored.

When I mentioned these possibilities to a friend who teaches in the New York City schools, she replied, “Don’t worry about our HVAC systems. They’re all broken.” Instead of using limited time and funding to engage in hygiene theater, we should be investigating how to address ventilation. Or at the very least, be honest with the public about some institutions’ inability to make interior spaces safe.
SEF Schools from the 70s
SEF Schools from the 70s.  Toronto District School Board

Up north in Toronto, the Globe and Mail's architecture critic Alex Bozikovic asks the same question: "School ventilation could spread COVID-19. Why aren’t we talking about it?"

There is growing concern that the virus can be transmitted through air over longer distances. This could have huge implications for how buildings – including schools – function. And to address the risk demands checking and upgrading ventilation systems. That’s a complex and expensive exercise in building science, made worse by the run-down state of many Canadian public schools. It’s time to get started.

They are run down. Many old schools do not have much ventilation at all; in the seventies, many SEF (Study of Education Facilities) schools, designed by the late Rod Robbie, were built to the latest thinking about office buildings, with tiny sealed windows and recirculating ventilation systems that just add a bit of fresh air. Bozikovic speaks to engineers who tell him that they don't know where to start.

“There is an almost total lack of direction,” said engineer Ian Jarvis of Enerlife Consulting, who has worked extensively with schools on energy-efficiency projects. “Nobody knows exactly what needs to be done.”...Mr. Jarvis suggests that every school building should undergo a thorough inspection of its ventilation systems to see whether they are functioning as designed, and the rate at which they exchange air.

Just Throw the Kids Outside

High Park School 1911
High Park School 1911. City of Toronto Archives 

Even if these studies and repairs were happening (which is unlikely) there is another idea that my colleague Katherine Martinko suggested months ago: Schools should reopen outdoors. She wrote:

It's radical, yes, but is it any more radical than swaddling children in plexiglass and spraying them with germ-slaying chemicals multiple times a year? If anything, it's a rare opportunity to address a public health disaster while not only taking preventive measures but also improving an aspect of children's health that was previously lacking. Our kids could come out mentally and physically healthier in the long run, and with greater resilience, if given good outdoor-based educations.

Others are picking up on the idea months later; Andrew Potter says "blow up plans for the school year and get creative, you fools," and throw the kids outside. He is writing from Ontario, Canada as Katherine was, and notes accurately that school boards and politicians have so many competing agendas, and nobody knows what they are doing just weeks before school starts. Although it appears that they are going back into regular classrooms with a few new rules about masks and washing and separation.

Thankfully, there’s an alternative, which is to flip the entire model on its head. Instead of students spending most of their time indoors with occasional trips outside for some fresh air, the default should be to hold school outside with very occasional sessions indoors only when absolutely necessary. 

Potter notes that there is a lot of room for this in schoolyards, parks, sports fields, and even shopping mall parking lots. He seems to be channeling Katherine, in suggesting that the curriculum adapts to the new conditions as well. In Potter's version:

Lots of schools build field trips into their curriculum. Why not make field trips the default? Why not teach kids how to identify all the trees and plants in the park, how to use a compass and read a map, or how to follow the sewage system from where a toilet gets flushed to where it discharges into the nearby river or sea? What is preventing us from using this as an opportunity to rethink where and how we educate our children, and why? 
Victoria Park Outdoor School
Victoria Park Outdoor School.  City of Toronto Archives

There is nothing new in this, and it was done in Canada and the USA a hundred years ago, as I have described in a post, Bring Back the Open-Air School. Now Monika Warzecha of TVO writes:

The blurry, out-of-focus photos of forest schools from a century ago have a fairytale-like quality — the small children sit at their desks dwarfed by enormous trees. It’s as though Hansel and Gretel stumbled into the woods and found a classroom instead of a witch’s cottage.
Orde Street School, Toronto
Orde Street School, Toronto.  City of Toronto Archives

There were more urban schools built then that may not have had the trees, but they had the fresh air. The Orde Street School where this photo was taken is still there, and still has accessible flat roofs where the kids go to get fresh air. Warzecha quotes one of the founders of the Open Air School Movement, writing back in 1911 in the UK: “In the days of long ago it was the common practice of the student to go into field and forest, on the hillside, or by the river, to learn what he could … The Open Air School is but another instance of history repeating itself.”

Perhaps history should repeat itself once again, even if just to give us enough time to fix the schools' ventilation systems.