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HEPA filters are not a silver bullet by any means, said Micheál Martin. Alamy Stock Photo
freezing classrooms

Taoiseach says funding will be made available to schools that wish to purchase HEPA filters

Mary Lou McDonald says children and teachers are left freezing in classrooms as windows must be left open.

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said the government will provide resources to schools that wish to buy HEPA filters for classrooms.

The Taoiseach was questioned by a number of members of the Opposition during Leaders’ Questions about ventilation in schools, who asked why the government was slow to move on the issue.

Martin told the Dáil that the government is not against HEPA filters, stating they are in fact in favour of their usage.

He confirmed that the government would provide funding for the filters, but said “it may not be necessary in every classroom”.

“The funding will be made available if schools wish to purchase filters in given situations,” he said.

The Taoiseach said there are 50,000 classrooms across the country, between primary and post-primary schools, adding that the government is adopting a “targeted approach to address ventilation issues”, which he said may include air cleaners, where required.

“We are looking here at air cleaners costing between €1,500 and €1,800, which we think are is required for classrooms,” he added.

The Government acts on science all the time in what we do around Covid-19, he told the Dáil.

“Funding will be made available but there could be different solutions for different schools around ventilation and air quality. Some may be more medium-term. The immediate short-term solution is portable HEPA filters or some improvement of that kind. Funding will be made available for that. It is not the silver bullet by any means,” said Martin.

The Department of Education confirmed to The Journal that the detail regarding the minor works grant for schools will be made available later this week.

‘Freezing classrooms’

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told Martin that “we are now in winter and our children and teaching staff have been freezing in classrooms wearing hats and scarves during the school day, with windows wide open in an attempt to keep them safe”.

“We are nearly two years into this pandemic, but the Government has still not delivered a plan for proper ventilation in our schools. It has been clear for some time that high-efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters have an important role to play in ensuring that schools have clean air,” she said.

“They remove contaminants and viruses from the air and help reduce airborne transmission in classrooms with poor ventilation.

“The WHO, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Government’s own expert group on ventilation have emphasised the value of HEPA filters in keeping schools safe, but instead of listening to this expert advice and installing HEPA filters in schools, the Government’s approach is, as the Taoiseach put it at his press conference on Friday, to open the windows and so on.”

McDonald said parents and school staff must have been shaking their heads in disbelief, stating that yet again there is no sense of urgency or forward planning.

Martin said the Minister for Education Norma Foley has at all times adhered to expert advice in respect of ventilation.

“While it may at times be tempting to lampoon the idea of fresh air, that has been the number one item on that expert advice, that is, where possible, fresh air is the most effective form of ventilation. Of course, that has limitations in the context of cold and inclement weather,” he said.

“The Minister for Education has provided substantial resources to schools and will continue to do so. Schools will be in a position, if they wish and if it is suitable, to buy HEPA filters for classrooms, but I point out the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, the expert body in the UK, on HEPA filters.

“It is saying there is a need for better data on real-world application to support these technologies. It may be a viable solution in spaces where it is difficult to provide good ventilation. SAGE is saying that a lot of the application of filters will depend on the configuration of rooms and certain situations.”

The Sinn Fein leader accused the Taoiseach of taking a laissez-faire approach with schools.

She called on the Taoiseach to commit that the Government will ensure that these filters are rolled out, stating that the government should use the Christmas break as an opportunity to install them when children are off school.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said that science is clear that HEPA filters would help the situation is schools, stating that paying out for the filters will cost a lot less than the other measures the government are putting in place. 

Social Democrats Education Spokesperson Gary Gannon highlighted that €30 million scheme is being finalised to provide air filtration units for schools, but that funding is being provided under a minor works grant.

Schools will have to choose between HEPA filters and other essential works, he said.

“Schools are therefore placed in an invidious position – they can either choose to prioritise ventilation or other essential works or equipment,” said Gannon who called for a dedicated scheme to provide the filters in schools.

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