By Cate McCurry, PA
Every classroom in Ireland should receive air filters as part of a New Year's resolution to bolster safety in schools, a primary principal has said.
Lisa Callanan said applying for minor works grants to secure HEPA filters is cumbersome for under-pressure schools already struggling to keep a lid on Covid-19 cases.
The principal of Rathbeggan National School in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, says using the portable systems could also end uncertainty over whether schools will be allowed to re-open after the Christmas break.
Nine machines have been installed by Irish company Mia Air in her 173-pupil school, removing the constant need to leave windows and doors open.
“What we are able to do now is close more windows and doors as the filters run and open everything again when the children are on outside breaks to let fresh air through the building,” she said.
“It is another preventative measure and with case numbers on the rise with the new variant, we feel we are doing extra in the hope of keeping everyone safe and the school open.”
Opening windows for ventilation at the coldest point of the year, particularly in a 61-year-old school such as Rathbeggan, is “not ideal” for teaching or learning, she said.
A fund of up to €72 million was announced earlier this week to allow schools and childcare services improve ventilation but Ms Callanan says filters suitable to different classroom types should have been supplied directly.
“We are pushed to the limit in terms of resources with the substitute crisis and in trying to keep continuity in teaching and learning.
“Minor works grant applications take time and that takes from an already overloaded schedule,” she added.
“I would have preferred more definitive guidance. Schools are incredibly busy places.
“Ideally, HEPA 14 filters should arrive in every classroom in the country once assessments are made on which ones suit best; that would make it crystal clear that every school would have that extra layer of protection.
“Introducing them at an earlier juncture, rather than almost two years later, would have been more effective.”
Until Mia Air filters arrived at the school of 18 staff last Monday, every external door apart from the front door was left open all day, while internally, communal room windows were constantly open.
The high efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) systems work by trapping and destroying airborne particles and viruses before pumping out clean air through a fan and can be controlled on smartphone apps.
Ms Callanan said providing HEPA filters to schools should be the ‘natural solution’ to tackle all forms of airborne viruses and bacteria, even beyond Covid.
Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the school has had to deal with just 10 positive cases of Covid-19, the result of a “huge collaborative effort” by children, staff and parents, she said.
“Every measure suggested in terms of prevention in our school community, we have taken on board,” the principal added.
“Children have adapted so well and parents have prepared them so well.
“They are layered up with base layers underneath their uniforms and have the option to wear their coats in class if they wish.”
She does not believe changes should be made to school Christmas holidays given the disruption to education so far.
“The best thing is to keep the natural school calendar as it is, breaking on December 22nd and returning on January 6th.”