The government’s plan to provide 7,000 air purifiers to schools falls thousands short of what is needed to ensure adequate ventilation in every classroom, according to a survey of teachers.
The Department for Education said ventilation in classrooms was key to reducing the spread of Covid-19 among schoolchildren but many teachers report that they have been left unable to even monitor the quality of their air.
Labour said the government was providing “just a fraction” of the ventilation support that schools need.
A survey of nearly 2,000 teachers by Nasuwt, the teachers’ union, found that more than half (56 per cent) did not have access to a CO2 monitor despite a commitment by ministers to provide all schools and colleges with them at the start of the school year.
Over one third (34 per cent) said CO2 levels often or sometimes exceeded 1500ppm in their classrooms, a level the government has acknowledged as unsatisfacory.
Around 10 per cent of teachers said their monitors were not working properly.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of Nasuwt, said the promise of 7,000 air purifiers “barely scratches the service”.
“Ministers have consistently emphasised the importance of ensuring good ventilation in heavily populated settings as a key mitigation in reducing the spread of Covid-19, yet they have consistently failed throughout this pandemic to ensure schools and colleges can be kept as safe as possible by equipping schools with the tools to improve classroom ventilation.
“Efforts to ensure good ventilation in the fight against Covid should not be a lottery for schools and colleges. Schools should be guaranteed the equipment that is needed, rather than being offered a chance to bid for an air purifier.
“We repeat our call for the government to go further and ensure CO2 monitors for every classroom as well as the provision of additional air purifiers for every school and college where ventilation has been identified as persistently poor.”
Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, said ministers were “falling short” of what was needed to keep children learning in schools due to “a lack of tests, only half of eligible children vaccinated and just a fraction of the ventilation systems our schools need”.
She added: “Labour called for decisive action to be taken over the Christmas break to get these problems solved but the government has again failed to get ahead of the virus.
“We’ve got a new Education Secretary, a new team of government ministers, but our children are still being treated as an afterthought with chaotic, last-minute announcements hampering their education. It is incompetent, complacent, and inadequate.”
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said in repsonse to a question from Ms Phillipson in parliament that the government was confident that “where schools are able to ventilate, they are doing so and therefore do not need the air purifiers”.
He said that air purifiers would be sent out next week to schools that need them, “especially to special needs and alternative provision settings, which as she knows are the most vulnerable, and to all other schools that cannot mitigate the problem of ventilation in the classroom.”
Labour pointed out that the purifiers would not arrive to schools until 620 days after the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) first warned about the importance of ventilation for opening schools safely.
And Ellie Reeves, a Labour MP, said she had seen an email from a school in her constituency “asking for children as young as four to come to school in extra layers so that the windows can be kept open in winter.”
She said: “Isn’t the government’s failure to get to grips with ventilation in our schools just another example of this government treating our children’s education as an afterthought?”