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Concern over air quality in schools prompts parents in London, Ont., to ‘take matters into their own hands’

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A group of parents in London, Ont., say they are taking matters into their own hands by launching an online fundraiser to buy hundreds of high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters they say are needed to protect teachers and students of COVID-19.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province would have “strong protections in place” when he announced Ontario students would resume in-class learning on January 17. They include additional rapid antigen tests, better masks for students and teachers, and better ventilation for schools, including some 3,000 additional HEPA filters to be installed in classrooms across the province.

The Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) said it has already deployed 1,413 HEPA units and a number of ventilation system upgrades at a cost of $72.6 million over the past five years, including:

  • Kindergarten classes in the 130 elementary schools of the TVDSB.
  • Classrooms with students with complex and pervasive medical needs;
  • Common areas (classrooms, libraries, gymnasiums, guidance offices, staff rooms, etc.) in schools without mechanical ventilation.

The board confirmed it would receive 89 additional HEPA units from the province over the next two weeks, which “will be prioritized for classrooms with students who have approved masking exemptions,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“Would I call that a big effort?” Probably not.’

But that’s not enough for London parents behind an online fundraising campaign via the Thames Valley Education Foundation. The objective is to eventually purchase enough filters for the entire fleet of 4,025 TVDSB classrooms.

A study of 169 elementary schools in Georgia that was conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control suggests that simply opening a window, door or using a fan in schools is one of the ways most effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“I feel like they are putting safeguards in place in that they have HEPA units,” said Lyndsay Fitzgeorge, mother of two and coordinator of the fitness and health promotion program at the Fanshawe College.

“Would I call that a major effort? Probably not. That’s why we’re campaigning, isn’t it?”

Fitzgeorge organized the campaign with Corrine Rahman, mother of three and TVDSB administrator.

“The government understands the importance of HEPA filters because they ship them across the province, but unfortunately our school board only has 25% coverage,” Fitzgeorge said.

“We decided we had to act now, like we had to start doing something and take matters into our own hands.”

As of Friday, the fundraising effort had raised about $3,300. According to school board officials, each filter costs $960 to purchase and install, with an additional $200 per year for upkeep, including electrical, filter changes and general upkeep.

“The evidence is very clear that the virus that causes COVID-19 is in the air, so purifying the air makes sense,” Fitzgeorge said.

Health Canada says “no direct evidence”

But not everyone agrees.

While Ontario has recently made significant efforts to install HEPA filters in classrooms, other provinces such as Alberta and Quebec are not doing so.

The Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) said it has already deployed 1,413 HEPA units and a number of ventilation system upgrades at a cost of $72.6 million over the past five years. (Frederic Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

A senior public health adviser to the Quebec government has said filters are “not a silver bullet”, noting that filters are unlikely to be an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus and “could create a false security feeling”.

An Edmonton school even went so far as to return a HEPA filter to a group of parents who raised enough money to buy one, saying the school’s ventilation was adequate.

According to Health Canada, although filters can capture airborne particles, including some viruses, “there is no direct evidence that portable HEPA air purifiers are effective in reducing the transmission of SARS- CoV-2 in confined spaces”.

Health Canada states that HEPA filters should not replace adequate ventilation, physical distancing or personal hygiene.

The federal health authority said the units can be considered “additional protection”, but only when “mechanical ventilation is not possible and in rooms that are not overcrowded”.

The council has identified 350 high priority areas

The parents behind the fundraiser say they are not looking to use HEPA filters to replace public health measures already in place, but say they would simply be used as an extra layer of protection for children. teachers and students.

A portable HEPA filter, in a Toronto classroom in August 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“We are not replacing these measures,” Fitzgeorge said. “We’re trying to add air cleaning to those other factors.”

Fitzgeorge said that, at the very least, the fundraising campaign hopes to raise enough to cover the 350 HEPA filters that TVDSB is still looking to install in classrooms and which have been identified as “high priority.”

In at least one study of 169 elementary schools in the United States that was conducted before the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, research suggests opening a window or door, or using a fan might not only be less expensive, but more effective.

Researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 35% reduction in the incidence of infections compared to schools that did not.

Schools that required teachers and students to wear masks saw 37% fewer infections than those that did not.

The study also indicated that schools that used air filters in combination with mask requirements and opened doors, windows and used fans and air filters saw 48% fewer COVID-19 cases.