COVID-19 check up: How is the ventilation in Revelstoke schools?

In our Q&A interview, we asked the Revelstoke school district for details on the status of ventilation improvements local schools in light of COVID-19 mitigation.

Students arrive at Revelstoke Secondary School and undergo screening in September of 2020 for the first day of in-person classes for the 202/21 school year after pandemic disrupted school in earlier in 2020. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

This article first appeared in print in the January 2022 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. See the e-edition of the print magazine here:

One of several pillars of viral transmission prevention identified by agencies like the B.C. government and the B.C. education ministry’s Safe Schools program is proper ventilation in buildings, including school buildings.

Schools are public facilities where many gather. The B.C. education ministry has committed to making ventilation improvements in schools as part of ongoing pandemic mitigation work.

To get an overview of the status of the ventilation systems in Revelstoke schools, we checked in with Mike Hooker, the Superintendent of School District #19 (Revelstoke).

The focus of our questions are on ventilation system and building-health related questions, to the exclusion of other pandemic-related topics.

We decided to use a Q&A format because we thought it would produce an accessible overview and update. We limited each response to about 250 words to make it more concise.

To summarize, the district says it benefits from a high school and elementary school that are in newish buildings and that recent HVAC upgrades are complete in two older elementary school buildings. The district also has operational policies like maintaining filtration systems, opening windows as needed, and more.

For a detailed update on the status of ventilation systems in Revelstoke schools, please see this Q&A interview with Mike Hooker, the Superintendent of School District #19 (Revelstoke).

Revelstoke Mountaineer: What is the status of ventilation at K-12 school buildings in Revelstoke now?

Mike Hooker: The systems are considered fairly new, by industry standards. The oldest two systems are in the two newest schools, Begbie View Elementary (BVE) and Revelstoke Secondary School (RSS), which means they are now nine and 10 years old respectively. (RSS celebrated their 10-year anniversary with cupcakes and karaoke on November 17). Arrow Heights and Columbia Park schools have both had their HVAC systems replaced in the last six years as a part of capital projects funded by the provincial government. So essentially, when considering what needed to be done, we were in an excellent position to respond when ventilation became part of the safety plans to mitigate the risks associated with Covid.

RM:Focusing on ventilation and school building health, what’s been done so far in Revelstoke schools, and what still needs to be done?

MH: With increased attention on ventilation, our engineering consultant reviewed the systems to confirm they were working as intended and to make any recommendations that may enhance the HVAC operations. Two areas were identified. First, there is an increased emphasis on the balance between fresh air intakes and recirculated air and second, a focus on both the quality of filter and the replacement schedules associated with the cleaning component of the systems.  It is less energy efficient to bring more fresh air in during the cooling and heating season, but it provides for healthy conditions indoors. So, in addition to bringing in more fresh air, our air exchangers, which normally shut down at the end of the school day for the night, start earlier in the morning and finish later in the evening than they did during pre-pandemic times. This has some small cost and efficiency impacts, but it ensures that the air quality is being attended to.

In terms of cleaning that air, we use the industry standard “MERV” rating scale to guide our filter use and replacements.  Most systems take the “13” rated filters which filter down to 0.1-1.0-micron particle size.  Filters in our systems are changed at a maximum of three months, and more frequently when needed, as the air quality conditions in Revelstoke can change depending on local factors. Our maintenance staff complete routine inspections of the HVAC systems, which are being done with more frequency than in our pre-March 2020 world.

Staff open doors or windows in their classrooms when they find it necessary, however, we know that this impacts the functionality of the HVAC systems. We appreciate that there is a balance between comfort and efficiency, so teachers are able to monitor that for themselves and their students. If it feels like the window should be open, then open it is.

RM: Over the course of the pandemic, provincial and federal governments have announced various funding supports to help school districts with COVID-19-related costs and challenges. Generally, can you explain how funding for any identified or potential capital upgrades to improve ventilation in Revelstoke schools works? If funding is a constraint, what is needed to resolve the issue?

MH: The provincial grants were available for districts with old or inefficient systems. Because our systems are modern and well-maintained, funding for capital upgrades was not an issue. We are grateful for that since capital upgrades are disruptive at schools because we can’t close off a space when construction takes place or shut down the building. Both Arrow Heights and Columbia Park have had major upgrades in the past couple of years, and while we appreciate how hard the trades people try to minimize construction noise and associated mess, it does impact day to day life in a building that is already full of energy and activity!

RM: On the topic of school building ventilation, what are the district’s goals and what needs to be done to achieve them?

MH: Our goal will be to keep our systems functioning as intended to ensure our students and staff are working and learning in the best environment(s) possible. Our board has been very fortunate in the past to have been able to secure significant capital funding for our schools. Anyone with experience in other districts and schools in the province knows that our schools are some of the brightest, modern, healthy spaces anywhere. In addition to that, our students are never more than a few steps from a natural environment that is the envy of most urban area residents.

The ventilation systems are playing a small role in our district as it relates to life in a pandemic.  The most important goals we are focused on include the health and well-being of students and staff, and the important connections that exist with our families. These are the factors that will help us during difficult times.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have or call/text him at 250-814-8710.