Edmonton Public Schools considering HEPA air filters in classrooms as parents urge action

Officials with Edmonton Public Schools are consulting with experts on whether putting HEPA air purifying units in each classroom willl protect students from the spread of COVID-19.

Previous trustees sent a letter to Alberta Education on Oct. 5 about ventilation standards

Toronto District School Board staff give a tour of Highland Heights Junior Public School, including new HEPA air filtration systems, on Aug. 10, 2021 as families prepared to return to in-class learning in the fall. Edmonton Public Schools is looking at whether it should get HEPA filters into its schools (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Officials with Edmonton Public Schools are consulting with experts on whether putting HEPA air purifying units in each classroom will protect students from the spread of COVID-19.

As the highly contagious omicron variant starts spreading throughout Canada, parents urged trustees at Tuesday's board meeting to take immediate action and allow parents to pay for the units or set up a pilot program to test their effectiveness. 

Parents said the provincial government is unlikely to take action so they asked trustees to make the decision on their own. 

Marie Watts, who has children at two Edmonton public schools, said HEPA units add an additional layer of protection, particularly during lunch when students remove their masks to eat. 

"This is the quick win we need now, before omicron hits hard," she told trustees. 

"You've already shown leadership regarding masks...you can do the same now with air purifiers."

While he isn't opposed to the use of HEPA air purifiers in the classroom, Darrel Robertson, superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, said more information is required. 

The district needs to consult with health and engineering experts to answer a range of questions about the technology, he said. They include what kind of units would be most effective and they work with existing building HVAC systems. 

The district also doesn't know how much it would cost to get units into all of its 215 schools. 

Robertson told trustees he is meeting with subject experts on Friday. The district may issue a contract in the new year to obtain additional analysis, he said. 

Equity needed

Some of the presenters said parents could help raise funds, but Robertson reminded trustees not every school has this ability.

"If this is needed from a health and safety perspective, I think it's incumbent upon the division to fund this and to make sure that we provide these units in all of our classrooms," he said. 

More health experts, including the Public Health Agency of Canada, are acknowledging that COVID-19 can be spread through the air and not just transmitted through droplets as originally thought. The omicron variant, believed to be more contagious than earlier versions of the virus, is raising alarms about the rapid spread of COVID-18 throughout the population. 

Board Chair Trisha Estabrooks said she appreciates that Robertson is researching the issue as trustees need data in order to make an informed decision. 

She expressed frustration that school districts are again being forced to step up as the province remains silent. 

After passing a motion on Oct. 5, the previous board of trustees sent a letter to Alberta Education asking for provincial ventilation and air filtration standards, and provincial procurement of HEPA units for in-classroom use. The province hasn't provided a response. 

"We, as school divisions, are often put in these decision points and …here we are again on the issue of ventilation," Estabrooks said. 

Estabrooks said equity is a fundamental value of Edmonton Public Schools. She said it wouldn't be fair for some classrooms to have HEPA units while others don't.