Home Outdoor education Ventilation key to tackling COVID-19, experts say, urging Australia to do more

Ventilation key to tackling COVID-19, experts say, urging Australia to do more

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It may be the middle of a Tasmanian winter, but that’s not stopping Windermere Primary School, in the northern suburbs of Hobart, from making the most of the cool outside air.

Principal Jarrod Williams said that like all public schools in the state, Windermere has the doors and windows open as much as possible.

There are air purifiers in all classrooms, hallways and other spaces, and fans to help circulate incoming outdoor air.

“Each school has been given a CO2 monitor, and we use that to check the air quality and that then helps us figure out how many windows or doors we can or [don’t need to] open if the weather is particularly windy or cool, Williams said.

He said the heater was still in use and students were encouraged to wear sweaters to school.

“The kids are quite resilient and they’ve gotten used to a different way of working, and so have our staff, and so has our community,” he said.

Portable air purifiers were rolled out to schools across Tasmania in January.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said ventilation remained a “key strategy” in its COVID safe schools plan, and that she had taken advice from an occupational doctor and a occupational hygienist regarding ventilation.

While there are good examples of ventilation in schools and elsewhere in Australia, the overall approach to indoor air quality is patchy, said Professor Lidia Morawska.

Dr Morawska is Director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at Queensland University of Technology.

“Ventilation is very important because through ventilation we remove particles from the air that have been generated by infectious people in the room,” she said.

Lidia Morawska smiles at the camera.
Professor Lidia Morawska said she takes a carbon dioxide monitor with her wherever she goes.(ABC News: Marton Dobras)

Dr Morawska said that despite its importance, “we pay very little attention to it” in general in Australia.

“In some states, more attention is paid to this, in particular, Victoria takes this very seriously.”

While opening a window is often the easiest way to improve indoor air quality, Dr Morawska said it’s not always possible or practical.

“We have to complete [natural ventilation] with mechanical ventilation and better ventilation systems,” she said.

Open windows in a primary school classroom.
Open windows at Windermere Primary School help mitigate COVID-19.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University chair of epidemiology, said air movement and air replacement were particularly important.

“The biggest difference now, especially while we’re in winter, is just being mindful of airing our homes, airing our workplaces, especially when people aren’t there trying to stay warm,” Dr. Bennett said.

Catherine Bennett wears her hair up and glasses as she smiles at the camera.
Professor Catherine Bennett said she expected ventilation to be considered a higher priority in future design.(Provided)

She said the pandemic has highlighted the importance of ventilation.

“It’s going to be something that’s going to change now… aged care will build new facilities in a very different way with that in mind and I think the business is the same.

“It’s this ventilation upgrade that we have, but also new construction and other places will now have it as part of the infrastructure.”

Call for indoor air quality standards

Dr Morawska takes a carbon dioxide monitor – similar to those used in Tasmanian schools – with her wherever she goes.

A high CO2 reading is an indicator of poor ventilation.

“There have been a number of places, a number of restaurants, for example, that already have good air quality,” Dr Morawska said.

“In many other restaurants or places there is a problem.”

Rosalie Woodruff photographed in a garden.
Tasmanian Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff is an epidemiologist.(Facebook: Rosalie Woodruff, MLA for Franklin)

Tasmanian Greens health spokeswoman Rosalie Woodruff said the state government “at a minimum” should provide financial incentives to small businesses to improve ventilation and air quality.

Dr Woodruff – who is also an epidemiologist – said clean air and mask-wearing were key to fighting viruses like COVID-19.

“It can allow people with all different health vulnerabilities to be together in the community,” she said.

“Every school class should have a standard, [in] in every waiting room of a hospital there should be a standard and checks should be carried out. We need space audits, we need to create a small industry, basically, in air purification in Tasmania and Australia.”

Open window in a classroom.
Open windows at Windermere Primary School can be a little chilly, but they are important.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Dr Morawska also advocates for mandatory indoor air quality standards.

She said it would be more complicated to regulate indoor air quality than to regulate outdoor air quality – while each state has an environmental authority responsible for outdoor air quality, the responsibility of buildings is varied.

It also requires more monitoring, but Dr Morawska said the technology is available to do this.

She said improving indoor air quality is an investment that can help protect people from future outbreaks.

Jarrod Williams with four students in a playground
Mr Williams with pupils (LR) Lilly Bennett, Chloe Noe, Ella Currie and Imogen Kent in the school vegetable garden.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Spend more time outdoors

Part of the Tasmania Department of Education’s response to COVID-19 also includes the improvement and use of outdoor learning spaces.

“We are building an outdoor learning space linked to our vegetable garden,” Mr Williams said.

He said teachers quickly adapted to moving some classroom activities outside.

“What’s really interesting is that our kids are really engaging in this outdoor learning and this different style of learning, so it’s a win-win.”

More information on COVID-19 risk management can be found on the Government of Tasmania’s coronavirus website.

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