Concerned parents and education advocates have filed a formal complaint against the public school board for what they call “unethical” ventilation practices, just as respiratory illnesses and absenteeism are on the rise.
Fresh Air Schools, which has advocated for stronger health measures and better ventilation throughout the pandemic, filed a regulatory complaint with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) under the Calgary Board of Education’s permit to practice.
Advocates say the complaint stems from the CBE’s continued unwillingness to provide them with information about ventilation quality in their children’s schools, and parents not being allowed to add portable filtering devices to some classes.
These include HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters and do-it-yourself Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, which can be made from box fans and furnace filters.
Accordingly, the complaint alleges that the CBE’s actions were unethical under engineering requirements that ensure the implementation of high-quality ventilation and filtration mitigations in schools.
Amanda Hu, spokeswoman for Fresh Air Schools, said her group has been asking for months for clarification and engineering documentation regarding filtration, ventilation, fresh air exchange and compliance with guidelines, but it has not been provided.
While the CBE has argued that schools are well ventilated with MERV filters, others say they do not meet the highest standards.
Parents who tried to raise funds and buy HEPA filters for their classrooms were repeatedly told they couldn’t put in the extra filtration for a variety of reasons, including a lack of equity among students.
“The questions I asked CBE were based on requirements to make schools safer for children and staff as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” Hu said.
“It’s not really enough to be told that things are ‘safe’ or that they ‘meet guidelines’. These measures are simple and they are either done or not, so it was worrying to consistently not get specific answers, and to get answers that contradicted guidance from government publications or expert recommendations.”
Hu said other jurisdictions, including the Edmonton Public School Board, allow HEPA filters in classrooms.
“This is the third school year that parents have expressed frustration over lack of action on COVID-19 mitigations such as air purifiers and ventilation assessments, and the inhibition of parents and staff bringing in their own devices.”
Jennifer Haverhals, another complainant and a CBE parent who is also a licensed professional engineer, added that when scientific evidence made it clear that COVID was in the air and that engineering processes and tools could be used to reduce the risks to mitigate,” it was actually exciting for me. , because now I felt like I could actually do something to help protect my family.
“But parents have faced a significant blowback from the CBE,” Haverhals said.
“I am aware of engineers’ responsibility to public safety, and the lack of involvement and detail from CBE left me with concerns.”
The complaint comes as respiratory illnesses and absenteeism in schools continue to rise, with around 12 per cent of CBE students absent due to illness.
CBE officials sent a letter to families Thursday saying they are now posting absenteeism figures at individual schools, which show several are more than 20 percent absent, and an overall average of more than 14 percent of K-3 students sick.
Meanwhile, more than 35 percent of the Calgary Catholic School District’s schools are experiencing absences of 10 percent or more, meaning they are experiencing an outbreak. And two classrooms have already moved to online learning from home.
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Officials with APEGA were not available for comment, but Hu did say the organization confirmed the filing and acceptance of her group’s complaint.
“The regulatory board will determine whether the complaint is actionable and then initiate an investigation,” she said, adding that if the investigation determines that the CBE has breached its ethical responsibilities, further action may be taken.
Public school officials did not comment on the complaint, saying only that the CBE has upgraded to MERV 13 filters in schools in the spring of 2022 where possible.
“These filters are still being used this school year and are being changed more often. In addition, all CBE schools are mechanically ventilated and systems are set up to maximize air exchange,” said Joanne Anderson, CBE spokesperson.
She added that Alberta Labour, Occupational Health and Safety and Alberta Health Services have inspected CBE schools for the past two school years and have determined that health measures in place fully comply with existing government recommendations.
“Portable air cleaners are generally recommended when no mechanical ventilation exists, meaning when windows are the only ventilation. Since our schools are mechanically ventilated, we have not installed these portable devices.”