HEPA Filters part of Province’s Return to School plan but unions remain critical

Prince Edward Collegiate Institute (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)
DESIRÉE DECOSTE

STAFF WRITER

The Ontario government has announced funding of $25 million to further improve ventilation and help mitigate COVID-19 in schools as students return for in-person learning this fall.

This additional funding, which brings the net new investments in school ventilation to $600 million, will ensure that all occupied classrooms, gyms, libraries and other instructional spaces without mechanical ventilation have standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units in place when students are back in class, including Junior and Senior Kindergarten classrooms in mechanically ventilated schools to recognize that the youngest learners will not be wearing masks in the classroom.

The filter installations are part of a  Return to School plan that allows for  elementary students and secondary students will attend school in-person five days per week, for the first time in months. Remote learning will remain an option for parents and students who don’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom.

READY TO RUN- PECI Students gather for a rally on the front grass of the school prior to the 2019 Terry Fox run on Thursday. (Submitted Photo)

Masks will be mandatory for all students between Grade 1 and Grade 12, and will remain optional – but recommended – for children in kindergarten. They are not required outdoors.

“With the release of health and safety measures for schools, students have a safe path to return to a more normal, in-person, full-time learning environment, which is critical to their mental and physical health,” said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. “We are following the best expert advice by ensuring all schools have improved air ventilation, including deploying an additional 20,000 HEPA units, in total over 70,000 ventilation devices, to help ensure schools remain as safe as possible. 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.”

In terms of the elementary panel, students in kindergarten though to Grade 8 will remain in one cohort for the full day with one teacher while members of different cohorts will be allowed to interact outside, with distancing encouraged, or inside with distancing and masks.

Secondary students will be returning to the classroom for the full duration of the day, school boards have been instructed to timetable students with no more than two courses at a time for the fall semester. The government says this will allow them the option to revert more easily to restrictive measures if that becomes necessary.

Exceptions to the two-course rule may be made for small schools where contacts can be limited by cohorting grades.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, as part of its science brief on school-based measures, identified the use of standalone HEPA filter units as a strategy for classrooms and spaces with challenges in achieving adequate ventilation. Approximately 20,000 standalone HEPA filter units have been procured through the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services and will be deployed to school boards where needed. Remaining funding will be allocated to school boards to procure additional standalone HEPA filter units.

“We’re pleased with the recent confirmation from the provincial government that our Catholic learning communities will be able to welcome our students back in-person this September,” Director of Education for the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board (ALCDSB), David DeSantis added “Experts agree that the optimum place for students to learn is alongside their peers with their teachers and support staff in brick and mortar classrooms.”

To support students, parents and staff in access to information on school ventilation in their communities, Ontario will also provide school boards with a standardized reporting tool on ventilation improvements. This tool will communicate school-level ventilation measures online to ensure that information is publicly available across the province, including inspection, use of standalone HEPA filter units, use of higher grade filters and more frequent filter changes.

“We appreciate the Ontario government’s evidence-based investment in ventilation and air filtration to help reduce COVID-19 transmission in schools. I have always maintained reopening schools is the utmost priority to support children’s learning development and mental health,” said Dr. Karim Kurji, York Region’s Medical Officer of Health. “There is benefit to improving ventilation in indoor settings to enhance both overall indoor air quality and COVID-19 risk reduction in schools. We must also continue to follow all other public health measures and I encourage everyone eligible to receive their vaccines to help avoid a resurgence of cases.”

The province’s  investment builds on significant action the government has taken over the past year to support immediate ventilation and filtration improvements in schools, while also upgrading school ventilation infrastructure where needed. Every year, Ontario also invests $1.4 billion to maintain and renew school facilities, including HVAC systems and windows.

Ventilation enhancements are one part of Ontario’s plan to advance and protect public education for the 2021-22 school year. Ontario’s safer return to school is supported by significant investments, including $1.6 billion in targeted COVID-19 supports and $80 million in funding for mental health supports.

Steven Del Duca, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party expressed other feelings in a YouTube video towards the Doug Ford government and the lag in the decision in getting the HEPA filters dispersed to all school.

“The $25 million they talked about to deal with HEPA filters, everybody has been commenting on that, where was that move, where was that leadership such that it is, months ago, instead of just a few weeks before the school year is set to begin again,” Del Duca declared. “I know that right across this province the two million kids that attend schools in our publicly funded system, their moms and dads, their families and frontline education workers, we were all holding out hope that Doug Ford would recognize that this, one of his most profoundly important responsibilities to get publicly funded education right and again, he has shown up with a half-hearted plan that’s completely full of half measures because he either doesn’t care, he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t have the capacity or he doesn’t really truly grasp that this is something we collectively, and he in particular, has a responsibility to get right, so deeply, deeply disappointing. Ontario Liberals will continue to push as aggressively as we can because I always say it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

Del Duca wasn’t the only one critical of the timing and details of the province’s Return to School policy

In joint statement from the leaders of the heads of Ontario’s teachers unions, the group said the Ford government has not learned any lessons from its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and for months, teachers and education workers have been saying that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn.

“Although the Ford government is saying the same thing, its actions do not back up their words. Our members look forward to welcoming students back into school buildings, but expect the government to ensure that it is done safely,” the statment read.

The unions say the government’s ventilation announcement is too little and too late and questioned why this investment wasn’t made 18 months ago.

“By releasing an incomplete and inadequate plan, instead of assuring families, staff and students that schools will be safe, the Ford government has attempted to create the illusion of normalcy. We are still in a pandemic, with the potential of a fourth wave driven by the Delta variant. Entire sections of the guidance document are missing at a time when some students are already back in class and others will be returning within four to five weeks, including a plan to manage COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, learning recovery and renewal supports and resources, and a comprehensive plan to support student mental health and well-being,” the unions said. “The plan, which is similar to last year’s reopening plan and loosens some protective measures, ignores the need for ongoing funding to ensure a safe and sustainable return to school. The government continues to download its responsibility to school boards and local public health agencies without providing adequate direction, time or funding.”

For more information on the Ministry of Education’s Return to School plan,  please visit https://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-education