Vancouver parent Kyenta Martins is deeply concerned about the prospect of her two children and hundreds of thousands of others returning to school on Monday (January 10) in the midst of a massive increase in COVID-19 infections.
A trained librarian, she has spent a tremendous amount of time learning how COVID-19 is transmitted.
“I’m used to doing research in different areas,” Martins told the Straight by phone. “Thankfully, there are HVAC [heating, ventilation, air conditioning] experts and epidemiologists who have shared their expertise. It’s not something that I ever thought I would need to learn.”
Martins, a volunteer with the Safe Schools Coalition B.C., noted that it’s scientifically accepted around the world that COVID-19 is airborne. Yet she insisted that provincial decision makers are not following that science.
She also alleged that they are not putting in place necessary mitigating measures to protect the most at-risk people in society, given that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted on tiny aerosols that remain suspended in the air after being exhaled by an infected person.
Martins spoke to the Straight on the same day that Ontario premier Doug Ford announced a two-week delay in reopening schools in his province due to a skyrocketing number of positive tests for the Omicron variant.
“We really need remote learning for the first couple of weeks,” Martins said.
She pointed out that Ontario suspended in-class learning even though it had already installed stand-alone high-efficiency particulate air filters, a.k.a. HEPA filters, in all classrooms and learning environments. B.C. has not done this.
Last summer, Quebec announced that it would have carbon-dioxide monitors in all classrooms by December. Martins noted that B.C. never did that.
“So B.C. is very much lagging behind,” Martins alleged. “We’ve been ignoring the science, and it shows.”
Even though her two daughters, Zoe and Cate, are fully vaccinated, Martins knows from her research that this won’t guarantee that they will avoid the disease when they return to Tyee elementary in East Vancouver. That’s because the Omicron variant is far better able than its predecessors to bypass vaccines and cause breakthrough infections.
She’s also extremely concerned about the high number of unvaccinated children in elementary schools. According to the COVID-19 Tracker Canada website, only 29.51 percent of B.C. children from 5 to 11 had a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of December 18.
In some jurisdictions, like New York state, hospitalizations of children have risen sharply in the midst of a wave of Omicron-induced COVID-19.
“We need to be remote right now,” Martins reiterated, “because hospitalizations are skyrocketing. Kids are getting sick.”
Parent tests air quality
Martins was so alarmed that in November she asked one of her daughters to bring an Aranet4 home carbon-dioxide monitor into her portable classroom. This came after she had heard assurances from the Vancouver School Board that the air quality in that room was excellent.
“Actually, the air in that classroom is not excellent,” Martins said.
Here’s where it gets slightly complicated. In a report to the Vancouver School Board, prepared with the assistance of former scientist Dave Pataky, Martins pointed out that most SARS-CoV-2 particles are 0.1 micrometres (one thousandth of a millimetre) in diameter. The report noted that most virus-containing aerosol particles released from the lungs are 0.5 to three micrometres in diameter and linger in the air like smoke. (In comparison, the width of a human hair is between 20 and 200 micrometres.)
She sought a measurement of carbon dioxide in the air because that gas is exhaled and is easy to measure. Therefore, it can be used as a proxy indicator of human-expelled aerosols in the air.
Martins pointed out to the Straight that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommends a level of 800 to 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide in indoor air. In her daughter’s portable classroom, measurements exceeded 2,000 parts per million and remained above 1,800 quite regularly, according to Martins.
“So to have that level of CO2 in a classroom is telling you the mix of fresh air to in-room air is not what you need it to be,” she said.
Moreover, Martins said that if the B.C. government had installed carbon-dioxide monitors in all classes, teachers could easily determine if they needed to take action. They would observe this when the numbers started spiking.
“You can vacate the classroom for five minutes, open all the windows and doors, and air it out,” Martins declared. “Or you can have a HEPA filtration unit or Corsi-Rosenthal box [a do-it-yourself air filter].”
The Straight asked the B.C. Ministry of Health if anyone could speak to the growing clamour of social-media criticism from very well-educated people who feel that the government has missed the mark on what causes transmission of COVID-19. The ministry did not make anyone available by deadline.
Coalition says science has been ignored
Volunteers with the Safe Schools Coalition B.C. have been influenced by several researchers who have been highly critical of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in research papers and on social media.
They include University of Colorado Boulder atmospheric chemistry expert Jose-Luis Jimenez, Oxford University professor of primary care Trisha Greenhalgh, and University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman.
“I think their work has been extremely important in educating the public about the real science—how COVID-19 spreads,” Safe Schools Coalition B.C. cofounder Jennifer Heighton told the Straight by phone. “So the fact that it’s airborne and that is the main route of transmission should be driving our policies.”
Heighton, a Grade 5 teacher, has been wearing an N95 mask to her class because it’s more effective in preventing aerosol transmission than the surgical masks often worn by Health Minister Adrian Dix and the cloth masks occasionally worn by Henry.
“I think they should be modelling to the public that the N95 is the superior mask,” Heighton said.
She added that Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has said that the quality of masks can make a difference, even if that mention was “belated”, in Heighton’s opinion.
“She recognizes that not everybody can afford it, which is why governments should be doing more to make it more accessible,” Heighton added.
When asked why the B.C. government has been reluctant to advance the types of air-quality policies for which Jimenez, Greenhalgh, and Fisman have been advocating, she had this to say: “I think it comes down to money—finances. I think that they don’t want to have to spend the money on N95s for all their health-care workers and for other essential workers, like teachers. So they’re kind of doubling down on denying that these masks are actually superior and should be employed.”
On January 4, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside told CBC On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko that "public health" was responsible for the government's decision not to make N95 masks available to all teachers in B.C. public schools.
As for remote learning, Heighton thinks that B.C. needs to do this for more than two weeks.
“They let Omicron spread so much in the community that now they’ve lost the ability to keep track of the numbers,” she said. “They’ve always said that community transmissions should be low for schools to be open. And they’ve gotten to a point where community transmission is through the roof.”
Some have suggested that the Omicron variant isn't as virulent as the Delta variant. Heighton, however, pointed out that there still hasn't been enough data yet to prove that for certain.
"The fact that it spreads so quickly, it means more people are all sick at the same time," she added. "It means that you could overwhelm your hospitals even if it was 'more mild'."
In addition, Heighton said that it's still too early to say what effect Omicron might have on the caseload of "long COVID" patients, whose symptoms can persist for months or even years.
One of her greatest concerns is the impact that the B.C. government's policies are having on a fundamental principle of public education: equal access.
In her opinion, those students with vulnerable conditions and those students who live with family members with vulnerable conditions are being shortchanged by the government's refusal to implement effective safety measures against airborne COVID.
“These are families that are beside themselves with unsafe schools—that have had to deny their kids an education because of the province opening the way they did," Heighton said. "So in [the] safe-schools coalition, we do have some families who've had to tell their kids 'sorry, we can't send you back to school just because they don't have ventilation.' "
Moreover, she said that B.C. didn't introduce masks for kids from kindergarten to grade 3 until October. Even after that occurred, she claimed that this policy isn't being enforced.
Heighton described the B.C. government's policies as "ableist" in that they discriminate against the immune-compromised and those with immune-compromised members in their family.
"Public school is supposed to be allowing access to every family—every child to have an education," Heighton stated.