The Surrey District Parent Advisory Council president says it’s “extremely discouraging” to hear that 20 donated portable HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are sitting unused and stored at a Surrey elementary school.
But the school district claims it’s because “most spaces” in the district do not warrant the additional filters.
Rina Diaz, DPAC president, said parents are “doing the best we can,” but after two years of pushing for better ventilation in schools, it’s discouraging.
Diaz said that at last month’s Surrey DPAC meeting, attendees were told the district wouldn’t be using portable filters, even ones donated to schools.
“One of those PACs was actually able to accomplish it for their school and they’re sitting somewhere. They’re not able to install them,” said Diaz. “It’s so strange because (the district is) sitting on HEPA filters and you’re not doing anything.”
Cloverdale Traditional Elementary School was the winner of an Airpura contest, which saw the school receive the greatest number of votes from the community. According to a release, there were more than 1,725 schools nominated from both Canada and the U.S.
Airpura’s UV air purifiers range in price from $900 to $1,150.
There were 10 runner-up schools that received one HEPA air purifier each, with George Greenaway Elementary in Surrey also being selected based on the number of votes. The Surrey school district confirmed to the Now-Leader that all the air purifiers were shipped to Cloverdale Traditional and are being stored there.
The DPAC, Surrey Teachers’ Association and the BC Teachers’ Federation have all urged schools and districts to use HEPA filters where ventilation isn’t up to the highest standards. A Jan. 27 post from the STA says it’s asking health-and-safety committee representatives at schools to make recommendations to their administration to “purchase portable HEPA filters to bring classrooms up to MERV-13 equivalent levels.”
Meanwhile, back in August, the BCTF called for funding for ventilation upgrades to meet the “minimum standards of MERV-13 filters, and HEPA filters in workspaces where MERV-13 filters are not possible.”
Diaz said it’s discouraging to hear that the HEPA filters are just sitting there after the work parents did to get them.
“I think that as parents we’re starting to reach our limit and most of us are feeling burnt out at this stage.”
School district spokesperson Ritinder Matthew said the district’s health and safety team “assessed the use of these units at the school and determined that they are not indicated for use at that specific site.”
Matthew added the district reviews all requests for HEPA filters “carefully” and considers all of the controls in place within the space, including ventilation, how the space is utilized and time spent in proximity to others.
“The physical layout of the space is also an important consideration as these units must be sized, placed correctly and maintained according to manufacturer’s directions. An incorrectly placed unit may increase transmission risk due to the air currents it creates.”
The district says that in “most spaces” portable HEPA air filtration is “not indicated because we have layers of controls in place to prevent transmission. These include optimized ventilation, maximizing use of available space, wearing masks, limiting mixing of people, and limiting time spent in close proximity to others.”
However, a professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, says there’s “really no evidence either way, actually, for COVID whether (HEPA filters) actually decrease or increase (transmission).”
Michael Brauer added that based on physics and what experts know about transmission and how the filters work, “it’s very likely that they are removing some of the COVID from the air.”
“Whether that is enough to really make a meaningful difference is not known, and I would say it’s quite unlikely — but yes, theoretically possible — that they could be increasing transmission, but I would say that’s very unlikely.”
Last fall, the Surrey school district released an online ventilation database that lists what ventilation systems are used in different areas of each school site.
The district said that where the equipment can accommodate, it had upgraded filters in HVAC equipment to MERV-13s. However, in cases where the manufacturer specifications do not accommodate MERV-13s, the district has installed the next highest filters that can be accommodated – either MERV-11s or MERV-8s.
MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting values. According to the Government of Canada’s guidance on indoor ventilation during the pandemic, filters with higher MERV ratings “are more efficient at removing particles.”
When the district released the database, it said it was also changing filters at an increased frequency – four times a year – to ensure efficient operation and to date in the 2021-22 school year, $674,000 has been invested in HVAC upgrades and $250,000 in MERV-rated filter maintenance.
But the majority of spaces listed were below MERV-13, including at Surrey’s newest school Grandview Heights Secondary, which only had MERV-13 in 10 of the 38 spaces listed.
Brauer said MERV-13 is one of the higher-quality filters.
“If they don’t have that, then basically the air circulating in that ventilation system is not very well filtered, so one of these portable HEPA filters would help. It would also help even if it does have a MERV-13 filter.”
Noting the district’s concerns, Brauer said it is “kind of variable from place to place, and of course, every building and every school is a little bit different.”
He did add that if there’s a concern for the HEPA filters increasing transmission, or creating its own air current, that “would suggest that the basic level of ventilation — if that was going to happen — that the ventilation in those classrooms was already not adequate.”