Row erupts over air purifiers at NSW schools as parents fear Covid spread

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP</span>
Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP

Air purifiers have been bought for some New South Wales state schools but others will miss out and that’s unfair, say parents worried about Covid-19 as students return to classrooms.

Parents and citizens groups at some schools have raised thousands of dollars to purchase their own air purifiers, only to have them knocked back by authorities.

The Department of Education has bought 19,000 air purifiers but they will only be distributed in air quality emergencies – such as bushfires over the summer. They will not be given to state schools to permanently install in classrooms.

Instead, ​​the government policy is that schools should open their windows to create natural ventilation. But teachers are concerned that means students will be learning in blistering temperatures over summer.

Related: ‘Out in the cold’: schools in NSW and Victoria are not ready to reopen, teachers warn

Experts, including the independent OzSage group, have recommended the use of air Hepa filters in classrooms where sufficient airflow cannot be ensured.

Prof Lidia Morawska from OzSage said: “Air purifiers are important tools for keeping indoor air particulate matter levels low, if the building’s natural or mechanical ventilation system cannot achieve this.

“They work by drawing air through a filter and in the process filtering the particles that are present in the air. These could be virus-laden particles from human respiratory activities, breathing, talking or coughing, and if they are removed from indoor air, the risk of infection decreases.

“It is strongly recommended that schools that do not have ventilation systems capable of keeping indoor particles down be equipped with air purifiers.”

Natalie Beak’s child goes to a primary school in the Blue Mountains.

Having the windows open is not an option throughout summer as the area experiences hazard reduction burns, bushfires and frequent strong winds.

Beak’s P&C group raised more than $5,000 to buy air purifiers but it has been told by the principal they may not be able to be used.

“We can’t get the green light,” she said. “Private schools have these in place, Catholic schools have them but public schools are missing out.”

Another mother who sends her daughter to a public school in Sydney said her P&C had also been told it could not fundraise for air purifiers.

She asked if children could take in their own CO2 monitors to check the air quality and was again rebuffed.

“There’s not a lot of transparency about what’s going on,” said the mother, who didn’t want to be identified. “There’s a lot of schools that don’t have the opportunity to keep their kids safe.”

From next week classrooms across NSW will be full again. Kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 students returned on Monday, while other years will return on 25 October.

The World Health Organization has recognised that the virus is airborne and as such the risk of aerosol transmission becomes higher under certain conditions, such as poorly ventilated indoor crowded environments.

Some schools have gone ahead and organised their own air purifiers despite the directive from the Department of Education not to have them installed.

One principal of an inner west school, who could not speak on the record, said they had been installed because the school was committed to reducing the spread of the virus.

It had based the decision on evidence coming out of Europe, which showed a spike in cases when schools returned.

Eliza sends her daughter to a different inner west school. She said her school leadership had also made the decision to ignore department directives and put in air purifiers. “Our principle is a head above the rest,” she said.

“It’s all over the place. I have heard its potluck to how your principal feels, what their district manager is going to say to them, how they feel with air purifiers and the possibility of absences of children.”

The education department spokesperson said it was stopping “P&Cs from purchasing their own air purifiers because they do not need to do so”.

“Multiple experts have indicated that fresh air ventilation is the most effective way to ventilate classrooms, and our audit has revealed that most spaces can achieve this,” the spokesperson said.

“Air purification is only recommended if windows or doors cannot provide adequate natural ventilation.”

Related: Can air purifiers improve students' academic performance?

The NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president, Craig Petersen, said schools had been told not to put them in because they could make air quality worse if not maintained properly.

“We’re not health experts and we’re not engineers. If [the health department is] telling us they’re not required and likely to cause more problems then we’d be better off using them strategically,” he said.

“You’re looking at an enormous cost of something that might not have any benefit.”

The senior vice-president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Amber Flohm, said parent groups should not be having to raise funds for air purifiers.

“It’s not the responsibility of P&Cs to hold sausage sizzles to fund public schools, it’s the responsibility of the government,” she said.

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