Covid classroom air trials could cut other absences

Government school trials aiming to prevent the airborne spread of coronavirus could have longer-term benefit, says academic lead

Government-funded trials testing the use of air filtering technology in classrooms to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus in schools could also help cut other absences related to illnesses such as flu, according to the academic leading the project.

Professor Mark Mon-Williams from the University of Leeds said that, although the trials are primarily focusing on how air purifiers and UV light technologies could reduce the spread of Covid-19 in classrooms, the wider benefits could be just as impactful.

“Even before Covid, we had huge numbers of pupils absent from school with winter bugs and so on. We know that any absence from school can have a major long-term negative effect on life outcomes so anything we can do to reduce that could be incredibly important,” he told Tes.

The trial, backed by £1.75 million funding from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), expects to publish early findings by the end of the year, followed by updates throughout the rest of the school year.

Professor Mon-Williams also said the Bradford area was a particularly good location in which to carry out the tests as there is already a strong relationship between NHS trusts, schools and academics that will allow a strong level of understanding in how the air purifiers may reduce illnesses and school absences rates.

“We will be able to look across the data and see what is happening by really drilling down to see whether these technologies are keeping children safe.”

“Even before Covid, we had huge numbers of pupils absent from school with winter bugs and so on. We know that any absence from school can have a major long-term negative effect on life outcomes so anything we can do to reduce that could be incredibly important”

 

Some have questioned why the trials are needed, with existing researchalready showing that such devices can have an impact on reducing particles in the air.

However, Professor Mon-Williams said taking time to compare the two technologies and establishing which may work best in a variety of classroom environments was critical to ensure any funding put into helping combat airborne particles actually served its purpose.

“We can’t just say, ‘here is a system that works in one setting, let’s roll it out on a national basis’ when we don’t know if there may be unwanted consequences of doing this,” he said.

“If [air filters] turns out to be too noisy, for example, then you have invested huge sums of money with an unwanted consequence and [the technology] cannot then have a meaningful impact.”

He added: “It’s critical that policies and decisions made are based on best possible evidence. We owe that to the next generation.”

As well as this the trials have already also helped uncover practical issues that could hinder any large-scale rollouts, such as whether many classrooms lack the necessary extra plug sockets to have devices in constant use.

“You might find a classroom hasn’t been rewired in 40 years and so that may be an issue,” said Mon-Williams. “The first part [of the trial] is all about getting a detailed understanding of the issues that arise when you start implementing [these devices].”

Commenting on the trials, a government spokesperson for the DHSC said: “We want to ensure schools are both safe and comfortable for students and staff – and have been clear that good ventilation is crucial.

“We are working to identify cost-effective ways to reduce transmission in communities and this pilot, backed by £1.75 million, is designed to assess the most effective use of proven air disinfection technologies in school settings.”

First published on tes.com

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