Liina Kersna: How to achieve virus-free schools?

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Education Minister Liina Kersna (Reform). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The whole world is making efforts to keep schools virus-free during the coronavirus period. We have also launched relevant discussions and activity planning. While this should have been done last summer, it is better late than never, Liina Kersna writes.

To make sure our children can attend school as safely as possible, we need additional measures to keep viruses in check, not just for this spring but also in the long run. We have been discussing and mapping out different possibilities together with scientists.

Air quality always important

Research suggests that the pandemic transmission of viruses is usually airborne. Therefore, construction, proper maintenance and use of high-quality ventilation systems is key in the long run.

Data from the construction register suggests that Estonian schools use 797 buildings with natural ventilation, 466 in the case of preschool educational institutions. At least half of nearly 800 buildings used by schools need investments in the near future. Modernizing ventilation systems alone would cost €350 million. And while that is a serious figure, so are facts on the effect of air quality for students.

Poor ventilation and high carbon dioxide levels are a problem not just in the conditions of the coronavirus crisis but affect children's ability to concentrate and their study results at all times.

A Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) study by Professor Jarek Kurnitski from six years ago found that poor classroom climate can have a 10 percent impact on study results. This means that more than a year's worth of knowledge can slip through the cracks over the 12-year period. Provided similar conditions persist.

The ministry is set to put together a ventilation database for schools and preschools, working with the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) and heads of schools, to plan activities and necessary investments.

The supplementary state budget holds €30 million for local governments we recommend using for improving the quality of air in educational institutions. We are also planning a more thorough ventilation-themed web seminar for principals and school operators.

Let us ventilate and dissipate

Air quality can be gauged by measuring CO2 quantity. A high level is a sign of poor ventilation. Scientists recommend installing CO2 detectors in rooms with poor internal climate. The detector reading over 1,000 ppm means it is time to air out the (class)room. The latter is the fastest and cheapest way to improve air quality.

TTJA guidelines suggest classrooms need to be aired out for 10-15 minutes after every lesson. While this might have been difficult in wintertime, it will be possible in spring. It is also possible to disperse breaks and have them outdoors.

Dispersion will remain unavoidable for some time. While it might be difficult to do, one meter of social distance is minimally necessary. In cases where dispersion is complicated, scientists recommend working in small, isolated groups.

Modern ventilation systems need to be switched on and work under full power for two hours before and after the building is used. Larger rooms with more airflow per possible airborne pathogens are usually the safer option.

Rapid tests and masks

Next to constructing and improving ventilation systems, scientists recommend the use of rapid tests to prevent and limit the spread of the virus in schools. The latter are being made use of in schools in Denmark, Austria, UK, France and Germany.

Two kinds of tests can be used to detect the coronavirus. PCR tests used by Synlab to test people in Estonia provide an answer after about 24 hours, while antigen rapid tests make it possible to detect the presence of the virus in about 15 minutes.

How extensive testing could be and who could be tested is currently being debated. The Ministry of Education and Research, the Health Board and scientists are working on clear principles.

Another aspect to consider is how to combine use of tests with other methods, like wastewater monitoring and efforts to improve indoor air quality. We need more information on the role of schools in coronavirus prevalence and infection rates among children of close contacts. University of Tartu scientists are working on a pilot study.

While proper ventilation is a long-term investment, masks can offer effective protection here and now.

University of Tartu research fellow Heikki Junninen says that medical masks are a good fit for schools and can be reused. While the masks cannot be machine-washed, they are resistant to heat and boiling a medical mask for five minutes destroys all traces of the virus. Masks remain effective after being worn and boiled a dozen times. That is good to know.

I'm sure we will be successful if we work together and work smart. Let us believe and trust our scientists. Allow me to close on another knowledge-based recommendation. If breathing in a mask becomes difficult, it is time to go outside for some fresh air. Be sure to open the windows to air out the room before you go.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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