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Burnaby school district spending $550K on air scrubbers to combat COVID-19

Secretary-treasurer says all classrooms should be equipped with filtering units by the end of next week
The Burnaby school district says 280 local classrooms don't have mechanical ventilation to help filter out COVID-19.

A semi-truck full of air scrubbers is on its way from Ontario to Burnaby, where 280 classrooms still don’t have mechanical ventilation to properly filter out Omicron or any other COVID-19 variant.

The lack of ventilation at some local schools emerged as a central concern during discussions with the Ministry of Education last week, secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill told the Burnaby school board’s committee of the whole Monday.

The province delayed the start of school by a week to allow district’s to beef up safety measures to combat COVID-19 during the ongoing wave of Omicron.

By the middle of the week, Horswill said local school officials were “scouring North America” for air-scrubbers with HEPA filters to make up for the lack of ventilation at some schools.  

“Really what we were doing was looking for any product that would work,” he said. “We were interested in sound. We wanted to make sure that whatever unit we were running in the classrooms was not so loud that it would interfere with the teaching. We wanted to make sure that it had the high quality filtration, and, most important as well, is we wanted to ensure that it had as quick as possible delivery date.”

The district eventually found what it needed in Ontario and has partnered with another Metro-Vancouver district to fill a semi-truck full, according to Horswill.

He said the shipment (350 units) could arrive as early as Sunday, and the air scrubbers should be up and running in all of the 280 classrooms by the end of the week.

The district has also order 100 smaller units for offices, small learning assistance rooms and other non-classroom areas that don’t currently have ventilation.

The total cost will be about $550,000, Horswill said.

“There’s been no commitment of funding to the district; however, we do know that there’s conversations ongoing with the federal and the provincial governments right now, so there may be a potential for dollars there,” Horswill said.

One upside to the recent discussions with the ministry about ventilation, according to Horswill, is that local school officials got a chance to “reinforce” for provincial officials that the Burnaby school district has requested funding for a number of HVAC projects in its latest capital plan submissions.

Trustee Christine Cunningham asked how many years it would take to get proper ventilation into all Burnaby classrooms, but Horswill said he couldn’t say.

“I wouldn’t be able to speculate because what we’re talking about is the availability of provincial resources,” he said. “This is in competition with seismic; it’s in competition with land acquisition, and it’s in competition with new schools, replacement schools. … But I can tell you there’s a lot of work that needs to happen in Burnaby to get those schools up to a standard that provides the air supply that we should be looking to achieve and have proper ventilation.”

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor