An education union has told a watchdog it is “increasingly concerned” over the government’s “poor advice” on ventilation in classrooms – considered an important part of preventing the spread of Covid.
The union raised concerns teachers were not getting the correct advice on what constitutes safe ventilation levels on CO2 monitors – used to check air quality – and when to act.
One teacher told The Independent she was struggling to get her CO2 reading down to recommended levels even with all her classroom windows open.
The government has started to roll out CO2 monitors to schools to show where more ventilation – the process of letting in fresh air and removing stale air – is needed to help prevent the spread of Covid.
But the HSE, the workplace safety regulator, has been told advice on how to use these monitors is in “urgent need” of correction.
In a letter to the regulator, Dr Patrick Roach from the NASUWT said his education union was “increasingly concerned that the issue of ensuring sufficient ventilation in school buildings is becoming muddied by poor advice from the Department for Education (DfE)” on carbon dioxide monitors.
He added: “We are writing to seek intervention from the HSE to support our efforts to ensure that schools can continue to remain open safely and to ensure that effective action is taken to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission within schools.”
HSE advice says an average CO2 reading of over 1500pm suggests ventilation is poor and action is needed to improve this. But in spaces of continuous talking or singing, or high levels of physical activity, it recommends keeping readings below 800pm.
Dr Roach said this would “apply to virtually every room in school”. DfE guidance says readings above 800ppm are an “early indicator” ventilation needs to be improved.
In his letter to the workplace safety regulator, the NASUWT general secretary said the government does not provide suggestions on how to improve the reading in its guidance, which also says the room can keep being used – which Mr Roach claims is contrary to workplace regulations.
“The NASUWT is deeply concerned that the DfE guidance may give rise to unsafe working practices in schools, and could result in schools being in breach of statutory regulation,” he said.
Mary*, a secondary school teacher in East Anglia, told The Independent her classroom has seen “really high” CO2 meter readings on some days, even with all three working windows in her classroom open. On one day, it was as high as 2300ppm.
“The school can’t do anything because there is nothing we can do to further ventilate,” she said.
Geoff Barton from the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) told The Independent many school buildings were “relatively old” and “not easy to ventilate”.
Alison*, a secondary school teacher in London, said she was told to shut all her windows – which she had been keeping open during the pandemic – after parents had complained about the temperature in winter.
She bought a CO2 monitor and managed to get the reading down to around 800ppm – but needed to keep several windows open to achieve this.
“I always put student welfare first. But I also have to put my own safety first as well,” she said.
Alison is hoping to be able to carry on with a few windows open and heaters on. “The temperature is not endangering anybody’s health. But the ventilation could,” she said.
Her school has also recommended she buys plants to keep CO2 levels down, she said. “I think if the World Health Organization thought that pot plants would help prevent Covid, then garden centres would be doing really well,” Alison added.
James Bowen from the school leaders’ union NAHT said ventilation was “crucial” in tackling the spread of Covid in schools.
“Getting CO2 monitors into schools was an important, if overdue, first step. However, the monitors themselves will not fix the issue of poor ventilation,” he said.
“Where these monitors are identifying issues that cannot be solved through simple, minor changes to the environment, then government needs to step in and provide more substantive solutions.”
The union’s director of policy said an announcement last week of air cleaning units for some special needs schools should be extended to all schools.
Mr Barton from ASCL told The Independent an online “marketplace” was announced for other settings that wanted them.
“Air cleaning units should be funded for all schools and colleges that need them and it is incredibly frustrating that it has taken 20 months since the pandemic began for the government to come up with a response on ventilation equipment and that it is so lacklustre,” he said.
A DfE spokesperson said its guidance on the use of CO2 monitors was reviewed by HSE and the UK Health Security Agency.
“Our rollout of 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors is providing schools with another tool to help minimise transmission of the virus, sitting alongside the other protective measures such as regular testing, vaccinations and increased hygiene,” they said.
“Schools are generally finding the monitors to be a helpful tool to manage ventilation.”