Australia Open windows in New South Wales classrooms key to stopping COVID-19 transmission

21:27  27 october  2021
21:27  27 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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New South Wales students have gone back to school this week with the wind blowing through open classroom windows in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19.

This step is based on education department modelling that experts say needs to be validated, with outbreaks in schools "inevitable".

The department says that "maximising natural ventilation in learning spaces is the most effective method for minimising the spread of COVID-19", based on advice from the World Health Organisation, NSW Health and the Doherty Institute.

Lidia Morawska, director of the International Laboratory of Air Quality and Health at Queensland University of Technology said good ventilation was crucial.

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"If the place is not ventilated, the [virus] particles have nowhere to go. And they stay suspended in that air and people inhale them, even if they are further away than two metres from an infected person," Professor Morawska said.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell told Parliament in early October that the department had conducted an audit of more than 150,000 rooms in more than 2,200 New South Wales schools, inspecting 650,000 windows, 200,000 fans and 19,000 extractor fans.

The capacity of each classroom was modelled on having a minimum of 10 litres of fresh air per second per person.

Openable windows equal to 5 per cent of the floor area, in line with the construction code, would provide sufficient ventilation.

However, experts said the modelling needed to be validated by testing.

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Woolcock Insitute's head of the respiratory and environmental group, Guy Marks, said the model could be tested by measuring carbon dioxide levels.

"Carbon dioxide levels are reduced when there is good ventilation. But it's also increased when there are more people in the space who breathe out carbon dioxide," Professor Marks said.

"The risk that the air will be contaminated by somebody breathing out COVID-infected aerosols is related to the risk that there are people breathing out carbon dioxide.

"My feeling is that there would still be a need, probably in all schools, to be able to take some measurements, not necessarily permanently, at least at some point in time to assess the adequacy of ventilation."

Professor Morawska said relying on natural ventilation depended on the state of the windows.

"This is really where measuring, using carbon dioxide, becomes extremely important, because you can be modelling these things, you can calculate these things," she said.

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"But then there's the reality that the window, in principle, opens but, in reality, opens only so much. Then you really measure which classrooms are a problem."

Even with the steps in place, both experts said there would be outbreaks in schools.

"It's inevitable we're going to see outbreaks in schools. That's what's been seen everywhere else in the world," Professor Marks said.

"There's no reason why it's not going to happen here, and I do think we need to do what we can to try and mitigate it."

Professor Morawska said conducting classes outside also helped stop transmission.

"If those other things also fail, there will be outbreaks. There's no way out of this," she said.

A spokesperson for the education department said several classrooms were being monitored to collect more data on fresh air ventilation, although only in 80 schools.

Works have been carried out to rectify windows, fans and air-conditioners and 19,000 air purifiers have been ordered for classrooms where it is not possible to open the windows.

The government was criticised by the opposition for not allowing parents and P&C groups to buy air purifiers for their schools.

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Natalie Beak — whose son goes to Katoomba Public School in the Blue Mountains — said the education department had also advised parents and P&C groups should not monitor carbon dioxide levels in schools.

"That's sort of a pretty strange statement to make, when we know that CO2 monitoring can be done very effectively, and is being done very effectively throughout schools and businesses all over the world," Ms Beak said.

"There's small, battery-operated devices that can be calibrated, and they provide a pretty good understanding of what the CO2 levels are in a classroom."

She said the department had only conducted a "paper" audit.

"It's an audit that relies on formulas, and it was created using these formulas in a computer," she said.

"No-one actually went to these classrooms and had a look at the space and took a reading of what the air quality was like."

A petition Ms Beak sent to the NSW Parliament asking for carbon dioxide meters, air purifiers and shade sails for outdoor learning spaces in schools was signed by 8,893 people.

Regarding the CO2 testing, a spokesperson for the education department said using the department's own data loggers would ensure the integrity of the data with regards to adding to the evidence-based approach to ventilation in NSW public schools.

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