Evidence for air filters in school classrooms ‘inconclusive’ - Northern Ireland Education Minister

Northern Ireland Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has said the scientific evidence for effectiveness air cleaners for classrooms is ‘inconclusive’ in response to criticism over safety measures in schools.

By Brendan McDaid
Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 9:57 am

The Minister has issued a statement aimed at reassuring parents that the safety and wellbeing of children and young people is her ‘top priority’.

She said however that it would cost at least £40m to install air filters in classrooms and that she would only bid for this money ‘if the evidence supports such investment’ and outlined a range of other safety measures that have been implemented.

The Minister was responding to an Assembly motion on ‘Keeping schools open and safe’ on Monday amid criticism levelled by various other parties over the measures introduced to date with some parties calling for a plan to put HPA air filters in all classrooms.

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Education Minister Michelle McIlveen.

SDLP West Tyrone MLA and Education spokesperson Daniel McCrossan speaking as the Assembly was recalled on Monday to discuss the Covid-19 situation in schools claimed: “It’s deeply regrettable that we have ended up in the situation where the Assembly had to be recalled so Minister McIlveen could be taken to task.

“For months I have been raising the concerns of parents and principals and even put forward a number of proposals for the safe reopening of schools, unfortunately all of this was ignored.

“We have heard directly from pupils who feel unsafe in their schools and staff who are at the end of their tether. Young people’s education has been significantly disrupted and unimaginable pressures have been heaped on staff.

“We have seen the impact HEPA filters have made in the South and in Britain in providing ventilation, and two years into the pandemic all we have done is place an order.

“The current chaos playing out in our schools cannot be allowed to continue. The Minister needs to do everything she can to ensure that our pupils and staff are kept as safe as possible and their education suffers no further interruption.”

Last week Foyle Sinn Féin MLA Pádraig Delargy also called on the education minister to urgently revisit the approach to managing COVID in schools.

The Derry MLA said: “Principals have been open and honest in recent weeks as they describe the deterioration of the situation in many of our schools.

“A lack of appropriate guidance, a lack of adequate safety mitigations, a soft touch contact tracing policy, and a lack of available substitute teachers have put many of our schools in difficult positions with many having to resort to partial closures,” he claimed, adding:

“The Omicron variant may also present new challenges, so I am urging the Minister to revisit her approach to COVID in schools.

“We put these concerns directly to the Minister in the weeks before Christmas and called on her to produce a comprehensive plan which puts HEPA filters in all classrooms, which sets out a contact tracing policy teachers and families can have confidence in and to speed up the redeployment of qualified teachers from non-pupil facing positions back into the classroom.”

Minister McIlveen said comprehensive guidance on the management of COVID-19 has been provided to schools.

She said: “This guidance covers measures to reduce transmission in schools including: use of face-coverings in post-primary schools; a twice weekly asymptomatic testing programme; maximising natural ventilation; retaining pupils in consistent groups wherever possible and promotion of good hand and respiratory hygiene. Young people aged 12 and over and all staff have also been able to access the vaccination programme.

“This range of mitigations act collectively to reduce risk as much as possible.”

The Minister said schools have been provided with detailed guidance on managing ventilation, and the EA has been working to resolve issues raised by schools through the deployment of CO2 monitors and remedial works.

“In relation to air filters, I must stress, the scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of air cleaners is inconclusive. At a conservative estimate, it would cost around £40million to install them across 20,000 classrooms. If the evidence supports such investment, I will have no hesitation in bidding for such funds. I will not move ahead of the evidence and recklessly spend public money.

“As an interim measure, I am investing over £2million this year on ventilation works including £1million to replace windows and £1million for CO2 monitors.”

The Minister outlined steps she had taken to address staffing pressures including an appeal to recently retired teachers to return to the classroom and relaxing rules for the 550 final year student teachers scheduled to undertake school placements in the coming months. This will release qualified teachers from supervising those placements and allow them to be used elsewhere within their schools.

She concluded: “Given the intense staffing pressures at present and the additional workload associated with Performance Review and Staff Development for teacher appraisal, I have agreed that this process will be paused for the current academic year.”

Sinn Féin West Tyrone MLA colleague Nicola Brogan meanwhile has said the Education Minister must take immediate action to support childcare providers after 69 childminding settings closed due to Covid-19 in the first five days after the Christmas period.

The party’s spokesperson for children and young people said: “These closures are indicative of the severe pressure childcare providers are already experiencing due to the Omicron variant.

“According to Registered Childminders, these closures have already left more than 400 children without care and their parents without the support that enables them to work.

“I have been continuously pressing the Minister on the need for additional support for the childcare sector and welcome her response to me in the Assembly today stating that a bid to extend the ‘Temporary Closure Fund’ has been submitted and that she is working on extending support which would ensure the sustainability of many providers.”