Kitchener-Waterloo

1 in 5 Waterloo Region District School Board classrooms have HEPA filter units

Only 22 per cent of classrooms across the Waterloo Region District School Board have HEPA filter air purifiers. A school board spokesperson said classrooms that didn't see ventilation improvements —including HVAC system filter upgrades or window improvements — were put on a HEPA filter units priority list.

Union wants to see unmasked areas prioritized for HEPA units

Of the 3,075 classrooms across the Waterloo Region District School Board, only 674 have been equipped with HEPA air filtration systems. Others have seen upgrades to windows and mechanical ventilation. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

CBC News has learned that just 1 in 5 classrooms across the Waterloo Region District School Board have been equipped with HEPA filter units.

The Ministry of Education has supplied the school board with 1,079 air filtration units and nearly 400 went in high-priority locations like kindergarten and alternative continuing education classrooms. 

There are 3075 classrooms across the school board, and the Waterloo Region District School Board told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo it has distributed its HEPA filters as follows: 

  • 303 units in kindergarten classrooms (100% coverage). 
  • 93 units in alternative continuum of education classrooms (100% coverage). 
  • 402 units in occupied spaces with no mechanical ventilation (214 occupied classrooms and 188 occupied non-classroom).
  • 264 units allocated to schools for local needs (64 allocated for local classroom needs and 200 allocated for local non-classroom needs).
  • 17 units are unassigned and will be allocated when needs arise.

HEPA filter air purifiers were one of the reasons the Government of Ontario delayed the return to in-person learning by two weeks after the winter break. It has spent $600 million to improve ventilation and filtration in schools, including paying for thousands of HEPA filtration units. 

A school board spokesperson said classrooms that didn't see ventilation improvements —including HVAC system filter upgrades or window improvements — were put on a HEPA filter units priority list. The spokesperson said there are also several construction projects planned to install full mechanical ventilation. 

Funding for the upgrades were paid for jointly by the province, the federal government and school board. 

"I think that it is a good start," said Jeff Pelich, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario Waterloo Region. "I think that when you're looking at air quality, we can always make some improvement," he added.

He said the union's biggest concern remains school spaces where students are unmasked.

"So in that situation, we really believe that HEPA units should be in those classrooms, and that would include spaces where students are eating lunches, where they are having free time for over 80 minutes a day," said Pelich.

More units on the way

Some local parents have expressed concern over the number of HEPA filter units across the board's schools. Those concerns recently prompted the charitable arm of the school board to launch a fundraiser for at least another 20 units.

"We feel we have met the guidelines that have been put forward by the ministry in terms of where we need to deploy the machines and how we can support and help," said Matthew Gerard, the coordinating superintendent of business services and treasurer of the board.

"But I think we need to look at the concerns that are arising from parents and families and how that may actually play out in comfort levels. It's an additional layer of protection that could be added on top of mechanical ventilation," he added.

In a written statement to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, the Ministry of Education said Ontario is a national leader in distributing HEPA filters across Ontario. 

The school board expects to receive an additional 70 units from the province — units that were announced in December when the province delayed the return to school for two weeks. 

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