CO2 monitors are the answer to a different question

Gavin Williamson and Sajid Javid announced funding to provide around 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors to schools ‘over the autumn term’. Their joint announcement was last week – Saturday 21st August.

No CO2 monitors have arrived in schools yet, obviously. When they are available, they will first go to alternative provision settings and special schools as more vulnerable pupils tend to be in those settings.

One of the conundrums over the last academic year was how we measure airflow in a room so we can satisfy all concerned parties that we had the right level of fresh air circulation. (Too little and air becomes ‘stale’ and Covid-19 virus particles possibly present will not be diluted. Too much ventilation in winter and everyone wears coats and is uncomfortable.)

Government wants to see all pupils back in school, and end to mass isolation of ‘bubbles’ and a return to ‘world class lessons’ across a rich curriculum. They want to see ‘science experiments, sport, music and drama back on the timetable’, as if they were not always on the timetable we offered all our pupils. Presumably, for some schools they were not.

The idea is that we can place, movable, CO2 monitors in places in school where we think ventilation may not be good enough; if the monitor shows no increase in CO2 levels (or not at a concerning level) then the room is set up just fine. If it shows significantly increased CO2 then we know we need to take further action – opening more doors / windows, restricting capacity, using a ‘purge’ ventilation practise, or closing the space for current use.

We did close off some areas in the early response to the pandemic, and most of these are still not in shared use – the rooms within rooms with no direct ventilation, such as our changing rooms (off the hall) and the music room (off the IT suite / back staircase). Those rooms are ‘closed’ as they have no direct ventilation possible – no windows and no doors direct to the outside. I very much doubt that CO2 levels are raised in those rooms, as we are not using them. The only way to practically test the monitor and the possible increase in CO2 level is to use the room / space with a full class and teacher. Anyone want to volunteer for that experiment?

Once we receive guidance on use and interpretation of the monitors, we will ask staff where they would like them deployed. We will publish the findings. We will take the necessary steps to maintain health, safety and well-being for staff and pupils, and to maintain the breadth and richness of the curriculum offered throughout the school day.

The advice and guidance was always to increase ventilation – to have sufficient, without telling us how much that constitutes for a given classroom. The advice is still to ventilate well; but how much is enough? Two cracked-open windows in a single classroom with 32 people in it? The door to a corridor open from a small room with four people inside? Air-con in an open-plan base with 64 children and adults? An upstairs window open on a stay for an office with three adults? Cloakrooms with 60 plus passing through with the external door opening and closing? Toilet blocks that open only to the same cloakrooms and serve the same number of children and so are ventilated as and when the door opens only? Staff toilets that are used by up to 40 adults in one day but have no opening windows at all (or air-con circulated air / vented air)? There are plenty of spaces for us to test, and plenty of times in the day to check. We’ll get to it as soon as monitors arrive.

Our dictum will remain, ‘hands, face, space, ventilate’. It has served us well over the last five terms, limiting transmissions, absences and isolations to well-below any average.

CO2 monitoring may be one tool in the box, and we will try to use it constructively.

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