In the wake of the Ontario government adding millions in funding for schools to help ventilate air better, experts say the focus shouldn’t be on whether the money is enough but rather that this be a long-term investment for the future beyond COVID-19.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced $25 million will be put toward adding approximately 20,000 new standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to the approximately 50,000 devices currently used in areas such as classrooms, gyms, libraries and other instructional spaces without mechanical ventilation.
So far, the government has committed more than $600 million to date for ventilation improvements across Ontario schools.
Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts, and schools without are expected to have standalone HEPA filter units in all classrooms.
Jeffrey Siegel, a professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, told Global News on Wednesday that while the filters and improving ventilation systems will help in the fight against COVID-19, schools need more guidance than the government is putting out there.
“There are a lot of good words in the document but there’s also not a lot of detail, a lot of specifics,” he said. “Every school is a little different so there needs to be not just resources … but there also has to be information.”
Martin Luymes, VP of government and stakeholder relations for the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), told Global News that portable HEPA units are an “appropriate solution” in the situations where classrooms don’t have fresh air circulation, such as older schools where the only form of ventilation would be to open windows.
“You will have a range of schools … for those that are 100 years old … those are environments where a HEPA filter or standalone filter might be a good solution or partial solution,” Luymes said, adding schools should know to hire professionals — engineers or HVAC contractors who are familiar with the installation process because it is not a “do-it-yourself system.”
Both men agreed however that things like HEPA filters are only part of the solution and that they are part of what they said should be a layered approach in regard to school safety.
“Any measures that are installed that involve air movement and air control and filtration are supplemental to measures including distancing, hand washing and all the other controls that have been introduced over the last year and a half,” Luymes said.
While Siegel argued there are things such as masking that are an even more important “layer” than filters.
“We need lots of different layers between an infected individual and an unaffected one so certainly things like filters are a good layer … but there are other things that are probably even more important – masks are a fantastic layer to reduce transmission, physical distancing. And I don’t just mean keeping people a little apart from each other but looking at the whole picture of how students and staff move through the school,” he said, highlighting students moving between classrooms and gym classes where breathing becomes more intense.
For Siegel, another potential shortcoming in the plan is where the resources are being targeted, saying they should go to where they will have the most benefit — to areas of society where health disparities have been exposed in the pandemic.
“It would make the most sense to invest the resources into those schools, to help correct that disparity.”
Siegel also pointed to looking beyond the announced $25 million on Wednesday and focus on how improving the ventilation systems in all schools contributes to the success of students’ futures and health beyond COVID.
If the HEPA filter is sized appropriately for the location it is placed — meaning it produces enough clean air for the space — then Spiegel said there will “absolutely” be a reduction in the risk of COVID-19.
However, Siegel said regardless of whether the filter helps to decrease the transmission of infectious diseases, improving air quality comes with a long list of other, long-term benefits for staff but also students, in particular.
“In a school, those benefits are things like improved performance on standardized tests, better cognitive performance, lower absenteeism for the students, reduced asthma frequency and severity … none of those things are up for debate, those are well-established in science,” Siegel said.
“The way I look at it as is the worst outcome is a pretty good one and I think we’re also going to do something about the infectious disease risk,” he continued.
“We always focus on the cost and I get it, there’s a lot of economic pressures right now and $25 million is a big number no matter how you slice it but the other side of it is why don’t we also look at the benefits – reduce absenteeism … avoided healthcare costs – that’s the reason to do this – the benefit is much larger than the investment.”
—With files from Gabby Rodrigues and Sean O’Shea