Crossed Signals: Debate over WiFi in schools heats up

Students used to go to school to learn the so-called Three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. In today’s hyper-digital age, the accepted wisdom is they will need to master yet another R – remote access technology – if they hope to succeed in the real world after graduation.

The Vancouver School District will address the issue by installing wireless Internet service (WiFi) in schools beginning in 2012, but not everybody is happy about the idea of turning school zones into hot zones, saying it could pose potential health risks to students. Secondary schools are first on the list for the WiFi rollout.

The World Health Organization issued a report last May that classified wireless technology as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” prompting two Ontario private schools to replace their Internet service with old school fibre optic cables. A small number of schools in other countries have also made moves to limit the use of WiFi, and last week dozens of parents took their children out of class for a day in a school district north of Toronto over fears electromagnetic radiation beamed by wireless devices could cause cancers and affect developing brains. A Council of Europe committee also recently pronounced WiFi radiation to be “more or less potentially harmful” and are urging for a continent-wide classroom ban.

Maureen Ciarniello, an associate superintendent with the Vancouver School Board, says the danger is being blown out of proportion.

“We understand that parents are always concerned about the safety of their children but we follow the direction we’ve been given from the Ministry of Education, which is in accordance with Health Canada guidelines, and we are always reading the new information that comes out,” says Ciarniello. “At this point in time, they are not saying that WiFi is a concern in school settings given the levels of radiation that are emitted.”

She says that it would not only be more expensive to instead install ethernet ports, it would be less practical.

“The thing about having it all wired in means that you basically can’t be mobile, you can’t be flexible and it doesn’t allow for support of different devices. We know secondary students are using mobile devices that are very small and you wouldn’t be able to wire those into a system.”

Six years ago, the VSB passed a resolution prohibiting the construction of cellphone towers within 305 metres of school property because of the chance children would be more susceptible to this form of radiation. Ciarniello says the two issues aren’t comparable.

“I was just reviewing the Health Canada guidelines, and the information on cellphone towers has different parameters than the WiFi so the government itself has set up different bits of information around that. I don’t think it is exactly congruent.”

Katherine Taylor, however, doesn’t want to see her 10-year-old son or any other child potentially exposed to radio frequency (RF) radiation six hours a day, five days a week, for 40 weeks of the year, and says the dangers haven’t been adequately researched.

Katherine Taylor doesn’t want children exposed to radio frequency radiation in schools. (Dan Toulgoet photo)

“My mother recalls that when she was a child all the shoes stores had X-ray machines to check if shoes fit properly,” said Taylor. “She and her friends thought it was great fun to take pictures of their feet. Of course it was all exciting, new, safe technology. I am concerned that WiFi will turn out to be the 21st century’s X-ray machines.”

She says it is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to children and that it is worth remembering that insulating buildings with asbestos, filling cars with leaded gas and smoking tobacco were all once considered to be perfectly harmless as well.

“There are widespread concerns all over Canada,” said Taylor, a small business owner who prefers to plug in to access the Internet. “This is the first generation of children that has been put in this particular wireless learning environment, so I don’t know how Health Canada can say that it’s proven to be safe. It seems to me very, very odd that the VSB is expediting this.”

“I have been following the health concerns and while I acknowledge that there is no conclusive proof to date of risks of wireless technology,” added Taylor, “there is an increasing body of evidence that provides significant and credible indicators of risk.”

Nobody really knows what effect WiFi has on kids, but Health Canada is confident the risk is minimal. In a posting on its website, the government body states: “It is true that there are no completed studies of the long term effects of WiFi radiation specifically on children. However, there is an abundance of studies that have used frequencies and signal patterns similar to WiFi. These studies are useful for shedding light on the possibility of health effects from WiFi. Some of the findings are directly related to children, while other information can be extrapolated to predict potential health impacts on children… Based upon extensive peer-reviewed scientific evidence, Health Canada has determined that exposure to low-level RF energy, such as that from WiFi equipment, is not dangerous to children.”

Taylor said she thinks more attention needs to be paid to controversial arguments from Magda Havas, a Trent University professor of environmental and resource studies. In an open letter to parents, teachers and school boards, Havas-whose views are widely disputed-called Health Canada guidelines outdated and insufficient.

“Canada’s guidelines are based on a short-term (six-minute) heating effect. It is assumed that if this radiation does not heat your tissue it is ‘safe.’ This is not correct. Effects are documented at levels well below those that are able to heat body tissue- Exposure to this energy is associated with altered white blood cells in school children; childhood leukemia; impaired motor function, reaction time, and memory; headaches, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and insomnia.”

Jennifer West, acting chair of the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), says the group recently surveyed parents to gauge their opinions. She says the results are still being analyzed but that there is a sense that WiFi exposure is OK for teens but not for younger children.

“We are looking at how to best integrate technology with schools moving forward and recognizing our kids need to be competitive in the global market and there are skills they need to acquire,” says West. “We are trying to be very cautious and want to make a differentiation between high schools and elementary schools. We didn’t get anyone equivocally saying wireless in a high school is a bad thing, the concern arises around elementary schools and very young children. We don’t want to sound like a bunch of Luddites running around saying there should be no Internet access in the classroom because that’s not it at all.”

West says many parents are more concerned about the financial cost, which Ciarniello estimates will be between $1 million to $1.5 million, than the health risk.

“Some of our parents have some very explicit comments about how the resources are allocated. We have a school board that has been in deficit for the past number of years and parents are continually being tapped for funding for field trips and text books and other school supplies. Could we not be allocating our resources towards fundamental things that our children need as opposed to expensive technology? One parent made the comment in the survey that a piece of chalk in the hands of a good teacher is worth more than a smart board for a bad teacher. I think that is very true.”

VSB Chair Patti Bachus

Newly re-elected Vision Vancouver board of education chair Patti Bacchus, however, says the expensive technology meets the definition of a fundamental need and that it is important for it to be accessible to students from low income homes in order to help level the playing field. “One of the challenges we always face at the school board is that it is important that we don’t want access to learning resources to be dependent on whether you can fundraise for it or someone donates it. I think it is critical that if we are moving towards a more technology-dependent educational system, we have to make sure there is equitable access for all students. Many students, of course, have Internet access at home, but there are many who don’t and we need to ensure they are not being left behind and the gap isn’t being widened even further by not being able to equip them.”

Bacchus says educators need to look at new ways to spend their dollars wisely in a rapidly changing learning environment. “We need to take a very good look at how we allocate our resources. For example, we spend a significant amount of money on textbooks that become out of date, and a student may have several textbooks costing over $100 each. Could we make a business case for replacing those textbooks with an iPad and each student having access to the resources through that? Our staff are trying to find ways to ensure that we have up-to-date access to learning resources for all students and looking at ways we can work with the provincial government. They want to talk more about ‘personalized learning in the 21st century’ to be realistic about the costs of making that shift.”

She points out that some high schools have already installed WiFi under their own initiative. John Oliver secondary on the East Side, for example, has become a living example of the term “new school.” Their new Digital Immersion program, which uses wireless computers to improve literacy, is now more de rigueur than French immersion.

“Digital immersion is a catchall phrase for a wide range of initiatives we have implemented here at John Oliver,”said  principal Gino Bondi. “In this area, the sky really is the limit.”

The digital literacy classroom is holed up in a heritage school house behind the main building. While the building itself is ancient, the tools being used inside are not. Students use iPads to do their class assignments and material is uploaded to tech savvy teachers’ shared Wiki accounts instantaneously. Outside the classroom, students can head over to the school’s “learning commons” (a room formally known as the school library) and surf the net while lounging in comfy furniture. There are currently 58 students enrolled in the school’s digital literacy program, and Bondi expects that number to triple within the next three years.

John Oliver Secondary principal Gino Bondi says his school’s digital literacy classroom, where students use iPads for class assignments, is the tip of the iceberg.

“Every student is coming to school with these devices anyway,” said Bondi. “They’re already interacting with these tools. Digital Immersion and all of these initiatives are designed to show them that if they’re just using these tools for texting or surfing the net, they’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more amazing, self-actualizing things that can be done.”

As for how students themselves feel about it, nobody has really asked them. No polls have been conducted seeking their opinion and it is simply assumed the kids are alright with it. Vancouver District Students’ Council president Leah Bae spent a couple of days trying to find out if there was any opposition among district students before sending this reporter the following tweet: “Students are all ecstatic about WiFi!”

Chances are probably good she also sent it from some sort of wireless device.

(This story was first published Dec. 2, 2011. © Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier)
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