Worry over air quality in schools pushes London, Ont., parents to 'take matters into our own hands'
As parents demand HEPA filters, Health Canada says there's no evidence they're effective
A group of parents in London, Ont., say they're taking matters into their own hands by starting an online fundraiser to buy hundreds of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters they say are needed to protect teachers and students from COVID-19.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province would have "strong protections in place" when he announced Ontario students would return to in-class learning on Jan. 17. They include additional rapid antigen tests, better masks for students and teachers, and improved ventilation for schools, including some 3,000 additional HEPA filters to be installed in classrooms around 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 last five years, which includes:
- Kindergarten classrooms in all 130 TVDSB elementary schools.
- 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 has confirmed it will receive an additional 89 HEPA units from the province within the next two weeks, which "will be prioritized to classrooms with students that have approved masking exemptions," a spokesperson said in a statement.
'Would I call that a strong effort? Probably not.'
But that's not enough for London parents behind an online fundraising campaign through the Thames Valley Education Foundation. The aim is to eventually buy enough filters for the TVDSB's entire fleet of 4,025 classrooms.
"I feel they are putting some protections in place in that they have some HEPA units around," said Lyndsay Fitzgeorge, a mother of two children and co-ordinator of the fitness and health promotion program at Fanshawe College.
"Would I call that a strong effort? Probably not. This is why we're doing the campaign right?"
Fitzgeorge has organized the campaign along with Corrine Rahman, a mother of three and a TVDSB trustee.
"The government understands the importance of HEPA filters because they're sending them across the province, but unfortunately our school board only has 25 per cent coverage," Fitzgeorge said.
"We've decided we need to act now, like we need to start doing something, and take matters into our own hands."
As of Friday, the fundraising effort had raised approximately $3,300. According to school board officials, each filter costs $960 to purchase and install, with another $200 a year for maintenance, including electricity, filter changes and general maintenance.
"The evidence is abundantly clear that the virus that causes COVID-19 is in the air, so cleaning the air just makes sense," Fitzgeorge said.
Health Canada says 'no direct evidence'
But not everyone agrees.
While Ontario has recently made extensive efforts to install HEPA filters in classrooms, other provinces such as Alberta and Quebec are not.
A senior public health adviser to the Quebec government has said the filters are "not a magic bullet," noting the filters are unlikely to be an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus and "could create a false sense of security."
One Edmonton school even went so far as to return a HEPA filter unit to a parent group who raised enough money to buy one, saying the school's ventilation was adequate.
Health Canada says while the filters can capture airborne particles, including some viruses, "there is no direct evidence that portable HEPA air cleaners are effective in reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in closed spaces."
Health Canada states HEPA filters should not be a replacement for adequate ventilation, physical distancing or personal hygiene.
The federal health authority said the units can be considered an "additional protection," but only when "mechanical ventilation is not possible and in rooms that are not crowded."
Board has ID'd 350 high-priority areas
The parents behind the fundraiser argue they're not looking to use HEPA filters to replace public health measures already in place, but say they would simply be used as an added layer of protection for teachers and students.
"We're not replacing those measures," said Fitzgeorge. "We're trying to add the cleaning of the air to those other factors."
Fitzgeorge said that, at very least, the fundraising campaign hopes to garner enough to cover the 350 HEPA filters the TVDSB is still looking to install in classrooms and that 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 cheaper, but more effective.
Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found lowered incidence of infection by 35 per cent compared to schools that didn't.
Schools that required teachers and students to wear masks saw 37 per cent fewer infections than those who didn't.
The study also said schools that used air filters in combination with mask requirements and opening doors, windows and using fans and air filters saw 48 per cent fewer COVID-19 cases.