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Dec 23, 2016

Almost an entire year has passed since Shanghai’s education authority announced it would investigate the possibility of equipping the city’s public schools with air-purification equipment. Yet the city’s parents still await a decision.

Anxiety is growing as reports of northern Chinese cities covered in a thick layer of smog flood the news, classes are suspended across the country, and the smog is now heading south. Since Thursday afternoon, Shanghai has suffered high pollution levels, with the city’s meteorological bureau advising people to avoid outdoor activity.

In December 2015, a nongovernmental organization called Blue Sky for Children proposed that the Shanghai education commission allow the city’s public primary schools and kindergartens to install air-purification equipment in classrooms. 

While the organization received no direct response, the commission held a press conference later that same month saying a feasibility study had been initiated, with cooperation from the urban-planning, construction, quality-supervision, health, and disease-control departments.

Zhang Lingling, founder of Blue Sky for Children, is tired of waiting. “Winter is the best time of year to make a concerted effort to push the authorities for an answer,” Zhang said. “Otherwise, we have to wait another year. During that time, the authorities and parents will lose passion for pushing forward, especially once the air improves after winter is over.”

Furthermore, Zhang and her team feel their requests are entirely reasonable. “We are not asking the education commission or the schools to finance the purchase of the equipment,” she told Sixth Tone. “We know that’s too much to ask for. At the present stage, we simply hope that they allow this equipment to be brought into classrooms.”

The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission responded to Sixth Tone on Thursday night, saying that the feasibility study is still underway. “We are still evaluating issues like energy consumption, electrical safety, and maintenance requirements. Also, we’re analyzing the connections between the application of air purifiers and the prevention and control of respiratory diseases,” said the commission in an email. It did not provide an estimate for when a final decision might be made.

The problem is not one of resources, but rather of consent, Zhang explained. Parents are happy to donate money to pay for air purifiers that will filter the air in classrooms to reduce pollutants to a healthy level. The obstacle lies with school administrators, who often refuse donations from parents without official permission from local authorities to install new equipment.

Chen Li, the mother of a 5-year-old boy who attends a public kindergarten in Shanghai’s Changning District, said that the parents of more than 20 kids in the class agreed to purchase an air purifier together at the beginning of 2016. But when they presented the plan to the kindergarten, it was immediately rejected, and the parents were not given reasonable explanations.

“They simply said there’s no policy allowing this,” said Chen. “That’s a very annoying excuse, and their attitude makes us wonder if they really care about the health of our children.”

Chen’s case is not unique. In Shanghai, there have been several instances of parents gifting air purifiers to their children’s classrooms — but most offers have been turned down, with schools citing concerns over issues such as electrical safety or unintended health consequences.

The headmaster of a public primary school in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, told Sixth Tone that schools with large enrollment numbers need a more strategic plan beyond simply buying air purifiers.  

She noted that classrooms with more than 40 students need air-purification systems built into the schools’ ventilation systems. “Shutting the windows of a classroom and hoping the indoor air can be purified with a small machine is not a scientific plan,” the headmaster said. “A school that has bigger classes definitely requires a larger project to integrate a fresh-air system into the structure. Without policy and financial support from the education commission, we can never make this happen.”

The school administrator added that she is particularly concerned about the well-being of her youngest students, who are most vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. 

The debate over air quality in schools is not limited to Shanghai. In the northwestern city of Xian, parents have also encountered difficulties convincing schools to accept the air purifiers they donate. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, the local education bureau made it clear that it doesn’t encourage — but also doesn’t forbid — the installation of air purifiers in classrooms.

(Header image: An elementary school student wears a mask outside after school, Shanghai, Dec. 23, 2015. VCG)