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HEPA filtration units 'not required' in classrooms: New Westminster school district

New Westminster parent had planned a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for air purification units and N95 masks for schools, but School District 40 said no
Masked student in classroom
A New Westminster parent says classrooms could be made safer with HEPA filtration units, but his plan to fundraise to provide them for local schools has been nixed by the school district.

Note: This story was updated Sept. 20 with links to ventilation system reports and followup coverage.
 

A New Westminster parent has hit a wall in his attempts to fundraise for air purifiers in local classrooms as part of the fight against COVID-19.

Gabriel Bauman launched a GoFundMe campaign last week with an aim to raise money to purchase portable high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) units and N95 masks, to be made available to classes in School District 40 on request.

As the parent and step-parent of three children in New Westminster schools, Bauman said, he wants them to be as protected as possible against COVID, especially with the highly transmissible Delta variant now spreading rapidly in B.C.

“My job is to look after my kids,” he said in an interview with the Record. “But I can’t just protect my kids. The reason I’m trying to get filtration into all the classrooms is if I don’t get all the classrooms safe, my kids aren’t safe, and neither are anyone else’s. That’s the only way to fight this: as a community.”

But his campaign ended almost before it had begun, when Bauman received word from the New West school district that it would not accept donations of portable air purification devices.

“After further review and taking the time to thoughtfully consider the questions posed regarding portable air devices in classrooms, we will not be implementing these units in our classrooms,” the school district said in a statement.

“Our decision is based on these considerations: 

  • these portable air filtration units are not required;
  • the questionable benefit as we consider the complexities of ventilation and air flow across multiple spaces and schools;
  • and our continued confidence as we are meeting or exceeding recommended standards on ventilation wherever possible.”

B.C. POLICY AT ISSUE

The decision has left Bauman frustrated.

He’s quick to note his respect for the staff who work in New Westminster schools.

“I really like these people, and I respect them greatly. I don’t like seeing them with their hands tied; that doesn’t feel right,” he said.

What’s tying their hands, in Bauman’s estimation, is ultimately B.C.’s approach to back-to-school health and safety protocols. He notes that guidance from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control for the K-12 education system touches very little on issues surrounding ventilation and air quality.

That guidance advises schools: “Continue to ensure all mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are designed, operated, and maintained as per standards and specifications for ongoing comfort of workers … and that they are working properly. Open windows when the weather permits, if it doesn’t impact the functioning of ventilation systems.”

By contrast, Ontario has mandated provincially funded air filtration units as part of the return to school.

Ontario requires that all occupied classrooms, gyms, libraries and other instructional spaces that don’t have mechanical ventilation – as well as all kindergarten classrooms, regardless of ventilation – have stand-alone high-efficiency particulate air filter units in place.

Before the 2021/22 school year, the Ontario government announced funding for 20,000 more HEPA units in schools, bringing the total to more than 70,000 ventilation devices in Ontario classrooms.

“Ontario got on it. Why aren’t we doing that here? And if it’s not necessary, why did they do it?” Bauman said.

At a B.C. back-to-school media briefing on Aug. 24, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the B.C. government has invested $77.5 million in air-quality projects in school districts. She said B.C. has more than 1,500 public schools and that “100% of those schools are working on ventilation.”

“We are going to continue to work with districts to ensure they continue to provide clean and safe air for students and staff,” she said.

Whiteside said the ministry has been working with school districts to identify where there are ventilation problems.

“There are very few instances where there needs to be mitigating approaches such as HEPA filters,” she said, citing Abbotsford as an example of where some portable units were purchased and deployed.

VENTILATION IN NEW WEST SCHOOLS

School District 40 superintendent Karim Hachlaf stressed the importance of ventilation in a letter to parents Aug. 24.

“Thanks to the newer construction of many of our New Westminster schools, in collaboration with proactive years of upgrades to others, we are meeting or exceeding the recommended standards wherever possible,” he said. “All filters – at every school and site – were replaced over the summer and will be replaced on a regular schedule throughout the year. We are also working with our facilities team to ensure that we continue to run our ventilation at full capacity, as we maximize the circulation of clean air at each school.”

The Record posed multiple specific questions to School District 40 about the state of ventilation in New Westminster’s schools.

The district noted the Ministry of Education has provided school districts with a template to document the ventilation at each individual school. That work has now been done and templates posted at the district website

For followup coverage of this issue, see a Sept. 20 story here.

ABOVE AND BEYOND

For Bauman, the crux of the issue is simple: “An air filter is not harmful to anything, except maybe the narrative that COVID isn't airborne.”

That’s how he put it on Twitter after being turned down by the school district, and that’s at the heart of why he’d still like to see HEPA units in classrooms.

“When policy comes down from on high saying everything is fine but it’s clearly not fine, you kind of expect the local administrators to step up and fill the gaps,” he said.

Bauman said HEPA filtration units could provide another layer of protection for students – regardless of the state of ventilation in any given classroom. With airborne virus, aerosols only disappear once you filter them out or exhaust them out of a room, Bauman pointed out, and that’s where the HEPA filtration units would add protection for students and school staff.

The challenge now, he said, is that time is of the essence – with students back in class and a huge number of those students still too young to be vaccinated.

In New Westminster, more than 3,000 students are currently enrolled at elementary schools, where the whole student population is under the vaccination cut-off age of 12.

The number of unvaccinated students in the city is higher than that, given that some middle school students are also too young to be vaccinated and others who are old enough may not yet have received two doses of vaccine. (As of Sept. 9, 75% of 12-to-17-year-olds in New Westminster were fully vaccinated, according to BCCDC data.)

Putting those unvaccinated young people into close quarters could change the trajectory of the pandemic in B.C., Bauman pointed out.

CHILDREN LEFT VULNERABLE

He cites numbers released in August by the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group, made up of mathematics and infectious disease experts from B.C. universities. Those experts predicted the potential for nearly 7,800 infections per day among children aged zero to 19 by mid-October, should nothing be done to curb the spread of the virus.

Though some measures have been put in place for society at large – including mask mandates for public indoor spaces – Bauman said B.C. schoolchildren remain relatively unprotected. Masks are “encouraged” for students in kindergarten through Grade 3 and mandated for grades 4 to 12, but Bauman pointed out that provides incomplete protection at best.

"These kids are eating unmasked, shoulder to shoulder, every day, and COVID is more infectious than chicken pox,” Bauman said. “If there was a chicken pox outbreak, we would not be sending our kids to school. This is bonkers.”

Bauman pointed to the experience in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

“We can see what happens with Delta; we can see it spreading in schools, and we can see entire schools getting sick, and we can just open the schools with a partial mask mandate? …

“This notion that we are somehow in a special bubble where kids don’t transmit, and kids don’t get sick, and we don’t need filtration in classrooms – this is unacceptable.”

Bauman said he can’t see a way that things will go well in schools this fall – but he’s hoping he’s wrong.

“I would love to eat crow on this,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of good things to say about it, but we got through last year. I don’t think we’re going to be so lucky this time around.”

The New Westminster school district statement says the district remains committed to taking the time to engage with staff, students and families, and it stressed that school safety remains top of mind.

“Our staff and schools will continue to enforce the BC Centre for Disease Control’s recommended protocols that protect us all, as we are confident in the layers of health and safety measures that are keeping students, staff and families as safe as possible,” it said.

A complete copy of the New Westminster schools’ COVID-19 safety plan can be viewed at the district website.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.