Manitoba is earmarking millions for schools to purchase stand-alone filters to ease anxiety as parents and physicians warn about the consequences of poor classroom ventilation.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced Thursday the province will dole out an additional $6.8 million to schools, with priority given to facilities in regions with high levels of community transmission of COVID-19.
Cullen said the new funding could supply 6,000 classrooms with a portable air-filtration unit, based on the assumption each device costs $1,000. He indicated the province, which has been reluctant to prescribe the universal use of portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in classrooms, will rely on expert assessments to determine when the devices could be of use.
"We’re going to do everything we can to keep our students and staff members safe. This is one tool in the toolbox," added Cullen, during a scrum.
Before the academic year got underway, the department of education asked schools to undertake inspections of their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and seek "engineered solutions," if necessary. Schools have also been directed to repurpose classrooms that do not have operable windows or other access to a fresh air supply.
The new funding will support improvements "that do not require construction," the government said. Manitoba Education and Manitoba Central Services will review project applications.
"We sent more than 1,000 emails to the provincial government, starting in August, asking for this — so this announcement is really late. It should’ve happened before schools opened, like in Ontario and Newfoundland," said Luanne Karn, an organizer with Safe September MB.
The group is calling on the province to supply divisions with funding for N95 masks for both teachers and students, require CO2 monitoring in classrooms and that records be made public for parents, and adjust its close-contact definition, citing the latest scientific consensus that the virus spreads primarily by aerosols.
The group is slated to set up an information booth outside the legislature Friday to highlight what it calls "essential mitigation measures"— classroom kits with portable CO2 monitors, HEPA filters, and high quality N95-type masks — to minimize aerosol transmission of the virus in schools.
A number of parents in Manitoba’s largest school board, who hail from communities including École Laura Secord School, and Ecole Sacré-Coeur School, have inquired about donating portable filters to the division.
In a statement, Betty Edel, chairwoman of the board, said trustees have asked Winnipeg School Division administration to look into the needs of classrooms, maintenance and safety of the equipment.
"The WSD building department has proven it is able to meet the provincial recommendations for safe air quality in our classrooms without additional units and we are also taking that into consideration as we consider these requests from parent groups," wrote Edel.
Manitoba’s back-to-school guidelines recommend ventilation systems be adjusted to increase the frequency of fresh air exchange, encourage outdoor education, and keep windows open to improve air quality. Per national guidance, HEPA filters can reduce the concentration of some viruses from the air, but their effectiveness in reducing transmission of COVID-19 has yet to be demonstrated.
Earlier, school divisions had been directed to use their portion of the $40-million safe schools fund to upgrade air filters or address other maintenance costs. Contingency funds have also been made available for high-risk regions.
To date, 14 of Manitoba’s 37 divisions have reported spending a cumulative $1.3 million on ventilation-related expenses — up from $800,000 in related costs reported in 2020-21.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.