Reopening schools and the importance of ensuring the ventilation system in the schools
Tabassum Tahmina Shagufta Hussein
The schools of Bangladesh are scheduled to be reopened on March 30, 2021. On March 10, 2021, there have been reports published in the newspapers stating the existence of COVID-19 new variant in Bangladesh since January, 2021. BBC Bangla published an article on March 5, 2021, speculating the spike in the COVID-19 cases during the spring and summer seasons. On March 11, 2021, there has been a 6% spike in the COVID-19 cases, according to the Ministry of Health. There is a fear of more transmissible dangerous variants of COVID-19 all around the world. All of this news coming within the backdrop of children going back to school in March. But these are speculations ascend from fears and concerns so far. On 12 March 13, 2021 Education Minister Dipu Moni said that Government may review the decision to reopen educational institutions if the rise in the COVID-19 -19 infection rate continues. The statement shows government’s highest caring attitude towards the children and the students. We should wholeheartedly respect and accept whatever decision government takes regarding the reopening of the schools without any second thoughts.
We have a successful and praiseworthy vaccination program going on. The government has taken several steps to ensure safe and secure schools’ premises. Masks and physical distancing are a part of the new normal which we are struggling to embrace. The struggling is within us. As parents, we have duties and responsibilities to get ourselves used to these new norms rather than mongering in fears, rumours and speculations based on propaganda and conspiracy theories. We should prepare the children as well. Education Minister’s statement on 12 March, 2021 should not stop schools and parents to taking the preparation. There is no harm in being prepared. Though preparation we can get ourselves used the masks and physical distancing. It s a fact that the rise is in infection, we are responsible by not maintaining rules and guidelines.
The schools have duties of their own. The schools must ensure proper hygiene, sanitization and monitoring mask-wearing and social distancing. Another key aspect is ventilation. Ventilation is as important as wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing.
COVID-19, as we all know, is airborne. Many experts say six feet or three feet of physical distancing is actually not enough to prevent aerosol transmission. If natural ventilation is not an option, air disinfection needs to be done to reduce the risk of COVID-19, especially in closed spaces. How a school better ventilate classrooms? Well, there are expensive measures to do such inexpensive ones as well. Classrooms that are not well-ventilated need heat, ventilation, and air-conditioning system that can prevent aerosol transmission, according to CDC (Centres for Diseases Control, USA). CDC is calling it the HVAC system. These systems can maintain airflow and filter the air to reduce the risk of COVID-19, but it’s important to note that they cannot eliminate COVID-19 risk. So, it doesn’t mean that if one is in a well-ventilated room, one doesn’t need to wear a mask or maintain physical distancing.
There are specialized air filters that can filter out aerosols. Then, of course, there are air purifiers with the HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. These can augment the HVAC system and also aid natural ventilation air purifiers with HEPA filters that can actually catch particles the size of viruses like COVID-19. Experts also say that air purifiers with a CADR (clean air delivery rate) of about 300 cubic feet per minute are effective against virus aerosols.
According to noted epidemiologist and health economist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding from the USA, who has warned the American public about COVID-19 in January 2020, he has been writing extensively on the importance of ventilation. Especially in the context of the schools he points out that ventilation is essential because, first of all, this is an airborne aerosol virus. Previously, we thought that what we breathe out drops it within six or three feet because of gravity, but that’s not true. Aerosols float in the air for 20 minutes to four hours or even longer if there is poor ventilation, and ventilation is a combination of getting fresh air from windows or using a filter to clean the air. Of course, the problem is that virus mass do leak, especially in children, and the mass still aerosol builds up in a room with many people over many hours as schools oftentimes do. That’s why we also need to replace the air, and CDC studies actually show the other issue is school tiffin period when kids eat lunches at school. The important issue is making sure that they will get fresh air to dissipate and clear these aerosols whenever they are not masked in eating lunch.
Dr Eric Feigl-Ding’s opinion is that six feet to three feet distancing can be enough with masking and ventilation, but just relying on kids unmasked to stay six or three feet apart that does nothing for the aerosols. The aerosols can travel throughout the room like cigarette smoke. When one smoke, others can smell the air to smoke from many meters or rooms away. This is why the aerosols for this virus which one can’t smell, does the same thing. So, the distance of six or three feet just that definitely does not protect people. They need to mask and ventilate and get fresh air continually.
Now specifically talking about the classrooms where there’s no ventilation, one can clean the closed classroom air. Rich countries can afford HEPA purifiers or filters system. Schools in Bangladesh can’t afford such expensive measures. Dr Eric Feigl-Ding recommends that if the school has the HVAC system, the central air that brings in but for rooms that don’t have good central air brings in fresh vented air by either reopening a door and using two fans- one high and one low to the ground blowing in opposite directions.
Both Dr Ding and CDC also emphasized social distancing, face covering, supporting between schools and parents, vaccination, testing and hand washing/ sanitizing.
New variant spreads rapidly among kids as one has seen it in other parts of the world.We want to protect our children as well as our teachers. In Bangladesh, most of the schools are not air-conditioned. Most of the schools are with regular fans and windows and doors in rural areas. And the doors and windows are quite often open only so that kind of ventilation is adequate to take care of the viruses especially if there is a fan also flowing that would usually take care of the circulation of the air and be able to exhaust out all the air if we have enough exhaust fans in case rooms are closed.
We have schools with air condition in the urban areas where ventilation is a problem. There the authority might think of Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, and CDC USA suggested two fan system.
Because six- or three-feet physical distancing works only when one is wearing a mask, at the same time, we have to understand whatever protection is being offered, whether the mask and distancing we must go in for that. There is no way that we should be ignoring rules.
The bottom line of this perspective highlights the importance of wearing masks, sanitizing hands and maintaining physical distancing and ensuring that ventilation is key without ventilation; some of these measures may actually fall short.
Tabassum Tahmina Shagufta Hussein is an International Fellow-2020, International Human Rights Art Festival, Writer, Poet, Columnist, Translator, Contributor, Different Truths, India