School pupils wearing masks wait to undergo security checks as they visit the National Museum in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Schools in smog-choked Beijing to install air purifiers

Capital’s education commission bows to parents’ demands for clean air in classrooms

Education authorities in Beijing have bowed to public pressure and agreed to install air purification equipment in schools and kindergartens in the pollution-plagued capital after smog levels continued to soared in the first days of the new year.

The decision, announced by the Beijing Municipal Education Commission on Thursday night, was made as Beijing yet again extended an orange alert – the second-highest on a four-level scale, with severe air pollution forecast to envelop the city at least until today.

Beijing issued a two-day orange alert on December 30 as a new round of heavy smog descended on Beijing, Tianjin and surrounding Hebei province. The alert was extended for another three days on New Year’s Day and again on Wednesday. The smog forced shutdowns of factories and building sites, and led to massive traffic jams in the region.

Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining also met the media late last night in Beijing to explain the government’s measures to tackle the smog and other air pollutants. The Beijing News reported that Chen also inspected monitoring of emissions on highways and industrial areas on Thursday night.

The education commission said on its website it would run a pilot programme to install air purification equipment in kindergartens, and primary and middle schools in the city. The commission gave no timeline for the roll-out, but said that it was evaluating a feasibility plan. The programme would be funded by the municipal government, it said.

The commission also urged school authorities to take “protective countermeasures” on days of severe pollution.

The decision on the air purifiers came almost one year after the commission rejected a similar public call from parents.

The commission said at the time that it would be “hard to find to a proper solution”, citing concerns of new health threats to children caused by the equipment.

The official rejection triggered massive complaints from parents in the capital, especially after a few elite schools and kindergartens were found to have installed air ventilation systems.

The latest round of smog prompted parents to make another desperate call.

In a lengthy Weibo post on Wednesday night, Yang Yue, a former radio host, challenged the earlier decision by the education commission. Yang’s post was shared more than 200,000 times before it was removed. “The country has a regulation to suspend schools during a red alert when the air pollution level tops 500 on the air quality index, but how about [the days when the index] is below 500? How about the days when there are yellow, blue and orange alerts? Are the children safe then?” wrote Yang.

Pan Xiaochuan, a professor of public health at Peking University, said ventilation systems that provided clean, fresh air to classrooms were better than simple air purifiers for the children.

But while many parents applauded the latest decision, many remained cautious about the commission’s lack of details about what kind of “air purification equipment” would be installed.

Chen Wenxiong, a father of a first grader, said the decision was “better late than never”. But no matter what kind of equipment would be installed, “it would be just a way to cure the symptoms,” he said. “I think the fundamental issue is to control the sources of pollution.”

The commission’s decision also sparked a lively debate online.

“Isn’t it embarrassing when tens of thousands of factories, mines and boilers refuse to use environmental protection equipment that costs billions of yuan, while the [government] now needs to spend billions of yuan buying air purifiers and air filtration systems?” one Weibo user wrote.