2017-01-06 12:10:01

In response to numerous complaints from parents worried about the health effects of their children breathing severely polluted air, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission said late Thursday night that air purifiers will be installed in the city’s schools.

An undisclosed number of kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools will receive funding to install air-purification systems, and district education bureaus will decide which institutions benefit first, said the municipal education commission.

China’s capital has been immersed in thick smog since the end of December, when it issued an orange smog alert. By 10 a.m. on Friday, the city’s air quality index had already registered a level of 228; below 100 is considered healthy, according to the Beijing Meteorological Service. An even more severe spell of smog hit Beijing in mid-December and led schools to suspend classes for three days.

Beijing’s education commission said experts would explore feasible plans to install citywide air-purification equipment. “Children are the future of families and of the nation,” the commission said. “[Protecting] children’s health is an important task for the education department.”

Parents who live in China’s capital city have been pushing for authorities to install air purifiers in schools since 2014. But in December 2015, the city’s education commission refused their requests, saying that levels of carbon dioxide in classrooms would rise sharply if purification systems — which need airtight environments to function effectively — were used. 

Classmates study beside two air purifiers in the cafeteria at Beijing No. 4 High School on a day when classes were suspended due to smog, Dec. 19, 2016. Zhao Yuhong/VCG

Classmates study beside two air purifiers in the cafeteria at Beijing No. 4 High School on a day when classes were suspended due to smog, Dec. 19, 2016. Zhao Yuhong/VCG

Families in Beijing are not alone in their fight for better air. Shanghai parents are still waiting for the green light from the city’s education bureau to install air purifiers in classrooms, one year since they were promised that a feasibility study would be conducted by local officials. For parents, air-filtration systems are fast becoming a major factor in choosing where their children will go to school. 

Many parents no longer see installing stand-alone air purifiers in classrooms as an effective solution to combatting air pollution, as the machines are often left turned off, may not be powerful enough to adequately filter the space, and can easily be undermined by teachers who open classroom windows.

Meanwhile, ventilation systems, which purify the outdoor air and filter it into sealed rooms, remove the opportunity for human error. But they also require the fundamental restructuring of school buildings. As yet, Beijing’s education commission has not clarified which type of air-purification equipment they will introduce into schools.

“It’s the only solution to guarantee safer air in classrooms,” said Wang Wen, a 34-year-old Beijing mother of a 6-year-old. “It’s impossible for schools to completely seal out the air from outside. Windows and doors will get opened. It’s not like at home, where you can control everything. Air purifiers can’t really help in this environment.”

Lin Lin, another Beijing mother, told Sixth Tone that her son attends a private school that has already been equipped with a fresh-air system. Despite that, her family is still determined to move to Canada this coming summer.

“When my older son finishes his grade-two studies, we’ll move,” Lin said. “My 2-year-old son has been kept indoors for weeks. It’s not just about classroom air safety; it’s about the air safety of this entire city. Even when I need to walk downstairs to throw away the garbage, I must wear a mask.”

Wang’s son, now in kindergarten, will start primary school in September. “I hope things will be ready by then,” she said.

(Header image: An air purifier is installed in a classroom at the middle school affiliated with Northern Jiaotong University, Dec. 4, 2015. Hao Yi/VCG)