Parent's bid to fundraise for HEPA filters in New Westminster schools stalls

A bid by a New Westminster father to fundraise for portable high efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) units in local classrooms as a COVID-19 safety measure has stalled after facing pushback from the school district.

The district said it never endorsed the idea, and the units are not needed. The situation has led to calls for more transparency about the efforts keeping kids safe.

In Ontario, thousands of portable HEPA filter units are being deployed in classrooms this year in response to the pandemic, in schools or areas without mechanical ventilation, and in full-day kindergarten classrooms. The Toronto District School Board has said it is installing more than 14,000 units in local schools, regardless of the ventilation systems in use.

New Westminster parent Gabriel Bauman got an idea to get some of the air-clearing units into local schools.

“We’ve got this highly vulnerable population of children who are unvaccinated,” he said. “We need to have multiple layers of defence when you’re dealing with an airborne virus.”

He contacted the school district, and raised the idea of a donation.

“In the end, we got to a state where it was clear that I could deal with my school principal and deal with the classroom teacher,” he said. “And if they were both amenable, and the facilities people approved it, that we could get these filters into classrooms...naturally, I thought well, you know, one filter in one classroom isn’t going to do it.”

Bauman then reached out to principals around the city to gauge interest, and started an online fundraiser.

“Why not put it out there, raise some money, and see how many filters we can put in the classrooms,” he said. “I just wanted to get a sense of how many teachers might be willing to have these units.”

Bauman said the principals did not respond, but he did hear back from the school superintendent.

“Basically saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, this was just sort of for you,” Bauman said. “This isn’t for fundraising. We don’t support your fundraising.”

CTV News Vancouver requested to speak with the district, and members of the school board, but was told they were not available.

In an emailed statement, the district said that after further review, “we will not be implementing these units in our classrooms," and referred to the fundraising campaign as “unendorsed."

“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,” the district said. “We have thanked Mr. Bauman for the opportunity to discuss, review and consider his request.”

The BC Centre for Disease Control’s public health guidance document for schools recommends making sure all ventilation and HVAC systems are maintained and working properly, and makes the suggestion to “open windows when the weather permits, if it doesn’t impact the functioning of ventilation systems." It also addresses the positioning of air conditioners and fans, but does not mention HEPA units.

The province’s communicable disease guidelines for school settings states “at this time, there is no evidence that a building’s ventilation system, in good operating condition, would contribute to the spread of the virus." It also recommends upgrading filters in schools with recycled or recirculated air systems.

Bauman says he’d like to see engineering reports showing how well school ventilation systems are working.

“If parents are willing to donate a device that cleans the air, I don’t see how that makes classrooms less safe,” he said. “I prefer facts to platitudes, quite frankly.”

BC Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring said she is not surprised parents are concerned about ventilation in schools.

“Families should be able to go to their school principal or go to the website and read about the ventilation systems and what their status is,” she said, and added last year some families and teachers did purchase HEPA filter units themselves, something she said shouldn’t have to happen.

“We’ve been told that providing information about school safety just creates anxiety amongst families and teachers. And I would say the lack of information, the lack of transparency in B.C. right now, is causing a lot of anxiety.”

Last month, the province said $87.5 million has gone towards improving ventilation in B.C. schools, and the funding supported a variety of projects including portable HEPA filtration units in classrooms.

On Thursday, Mooring called for more publicly available details on ventilation improvements and ongoing work.

“This is something that we’ve been pushing government on getting data around for a very long time,” she said. “Here we are, week two, we still don’t have that information.”

Meanwhile, Bauman is encouraging other parents to ask about ventilation at their own children’s schools.

“It fills rooms like smoke. You can’t see it,” he said, referring to the aerosolization of the virus. “It moves around like smoke and builds up in rooms. So you’re exhausting it or filtering it. Just makes sense to me. We don’t want these kids getting sick.”