Ontario’s education minister has announced another $25 million will go towards improving ventilation in schools with additional standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters as kids are set to return to in-person learning this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stephen Lecce said the investment will add approximately 20,000 new HEPA units to the approximately 50,000 devices currently used in areas such as classrooms, gyms, libraries and other instructional spaces without mechanical ventilation.
The government has committed more than $600 million to date for ventilation improvements across Ontario schools, Lecce said.
For schools with mechanical ventilation systems, which is about 70 per cent of schools in Ontario, Lecce said it is expected that boards regularly maintain them by using the highest-grade filters, change filters more often and operate them two hours before and two hours after school.
When asked by a reporter if Lecce will “guarantee” that he’s given school boards enough money and time to get mechanical ventilation or a HEPA unit in every classroom, Lecce confirmed it would be.
“The net-new component would be on the HEPA units and yes our commitment is to have those units within those schools, in those classrooms, within the first day of September,” he said.
“We have definitely delivered funding … We’re now at $600 million in air ventilation improvements that are being delivered for schools across Ontario. That is a significant influx of funds.”
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, the group that advises the provincial government on matters related to the pandemic, said when it comes to school-based measures that standalone HEPA filter units should be used in places where mechanical ventilation and improvements to aging HVAC systems was difficult to achieve.
HEPA filter units will also be in place for junior and senior kindergarten classrooms, with or without mechanical ventilation, as these students will not be wearing masks in the classroom based on the latest back-to-school plan.
“It’s another added layer of protection that recognizes that our youngers learners in this province will not be required to wear masks,” Lecce said.
Due to the pandemic, government officials said $1.6 billion in temporary resources will be made available for the upcoming school year to ensure a safe reopening.
“With the work we have done, I am confident we will keep students and staff safe in our schools as we reopen for the 2021-22 school year,” Lecce said.
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.
However, he went on to say that ventilation improvements are only part of the solution and goes hand in hand with other public health measures introduced over the course of the pandemic.
“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.
“There is no HVAC system that will solve the problem. It really is just a matter of what is the right solution in the context of the building that you’re dealing with and everything building will be different,” he said.
“Almost every building, every school in the province could safely be improved in some fashion … but what that solution is depends on the context.”
—With files from Jessica Patton