A Brief History of Time: WiFi Rollout K-5 in SD61 Greater Victoria

“That the Board of Education of School District no. 61 (Greater Victoria) establish a moratorium on WiFi installations in elementary schools until the WiFi Committee has completed its work.” “Due to discussions on the same topics, there was no action on [this motion].”

As always, The Record Off the Record is my own report on meetings. There will be no official version of the minutes so what you see is what you get: my interpretation.To save space and time on this report, some grammatical conventions will be flouted. Context note: Months ago I asked for hard copy of the SD61 IT strategic plan and was told that there is no SD61 IT strategic plan.

The School District 61 WiFi Committee has an interesting and convoluted history. Sort of like string theory, but not quite : “String theories also require the existence of several extra dimensions to the universe that have been compactified into extremely small scales, in addition to the four known spacetime dimensions.”

Timeline:

  • May 17, 2010Board Meeting: A teacher in SD61 expressed concern to the Board and asked for precautionary steps to be taken before implementing WiFi in schools until it is proven to be safe.
  • June 14, 2010 Operations Planning and Policy Meeting (agenda and minutes no longer available on the SD61 website; available on request for inspection at the Board Office):  Teacher who presented at May 17 Board meeting presented again, with support from citizens.
  • November 8, 2010 OPPS: Presentations expressing concern. George Ambeault, Secretary-Treasurer at the time, spoke in favour of WiFi.

Moved: That the Board take a precautionary look to allow the District Health and Safety Committee to review WiFi in our District, to review relevant information and to present recommendations back to the Board. Carried.

That the Board take a precautionary look to allow a representative ad hoc committee to review WiFi in our District, to review relevant information and to present recommendations back to the Board, through the Operation Policy and Planning Committee by Spring 2011 at no cost to the Board. [At this time movers and votes were not recorded.] Carried.

  • November 30, 2010: A memo (hard copy, not online) from George Ambeault (former Secretary – Treasurer of SD61, who resigned last spring to take a position as CEO of ERAC, Educational Resource Acquisition Consortium,  and former appointed Chair of the WiFi Committee) states that “meetings will be open to the public” (as well as unilaterally stating how the Committee will be run).A page was set up on the SD61 website advertising the Committee.
  • January 24, 2011 WiFi Committee (5:04 pm – 7:10 pm): 8 Submissions in favour of hard wired access . Citizen observer noted that posters outlining possible dangers of WiFi were not allowed to be posted in schools.
  • January 31, 2011 WiFi Committee (5:02 pm – 6:37 pm): Submissions : 5 urging adherence to the Precautionary Principle and 1 in favour of WiFi rollout
  • February 22, 2011 The Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association approved a statement incorporating some precautionary statements, and set up a Wifi information page with many resources for research.
  • February 28, 2011 WiFi Committee (5:03 pm – 8:25 pm):  12 submissions urging caution, 2 in favour of WiFi rollout. From an observer’s records: “Chair Ambeault stated that the Committee will take some time to  review the information received from the public and will meet in private for further discussion prior to making their recommendation to the OPPS Committee in June [2011].” Meeting video’d by parent.
  • April 18, 2011: Memo to Board from George Ambeault, Secretary-Treasurer and appointed Chair of the Wifi Committee: Summarizes November 15, 2010 Board motion; reports 3 Committee meetings so far; meeting for “working group” to discuss findings (who is on the “working group” is not clear). “It is the WiFi Committee’s intent to develop a report and present their recommendations to the June 13, 2011 Operations Policy and Planning Committee. This date has been selected at the request of the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils. The final recommendations from the Operations Policy and Planning Committee will be presented to the Board on June 20.”
  • WiFi Committee May 2, 2011:  Chair George Ambeault stated the purpose of the meeting was to make a recommendation after discussing information received to date. Apparently intense discussion took place, with no consensus conclusion.
  • May 31, 2011: VCPAC meeting; WiFi on the agenda.
  • June 13, 2011 OPPS:  Motion from WiFi Committee Chair Ambeault. Essentially, continuing to monitor documentation from VIHA, WHO, Provincial Health Officer , Health Canada, and that the Board review such recommendatns and any updates annually. Also a request to the Provincial Health Officer for informaitn regarding cumulative effects of EMF.
  • June 20, 2011 Board Meeting: The Chair declined to allow discussion on the following motions. “Due to discussions on the same topics, there was no action on these motions.” 

That the Board of Education of School District no. 61 (Greater Victoria) establish a moratorium on WiFi installations in elementary schools until the WiFi Committee has completed its work.

That the Board […etc…] direct the architects (name of firm) to include the channels for wired technology in the plans for Oak Bay High School to: a) make it possible to accommodate students and staff with electromagnetic sensitivities; b) make it possible to provide wired technology throughout the school should future scientific research make it necessary; and c) to review the European models banning WiFi in schools.

  • June 23, 2011 the Board Chair wrote a letter to Dr Richard Stanwick asking three questions about WiFi safety relating to health risk, cumulative effects on students and staff, and how to get regular updates.
  • July 5, 2011: Dr Stanwick, Provincial Health Officer, replied, stating there is “considerable uncertainly in the medical profession as to their [symptoms of EMF sensitivity] cause”; that WHO / IARC classified radiofrequency EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, but that a “consensus of public health practitioners” is that there is no threat to health, and that updates can be found at http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf

At that site (International Agency for Research Cancer): “The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period). …”Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings,” said IARC Director Christopher Wild, “it is important that additional research be conducted into the long‐term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands‐free devices or texting. ”

The IARC article suggests follow-up on the Lancet site (requires subscription): “EMFs generated by RF sources couple with the body, resulting in induced electric and magnetic fields and associated currents inside tissues. The most important factors that determine the induced fields are the distance of the source from the body and the output power level. Additionally, the efficiency of coupling and resulting field distribution inside the body strongly depend on the frequency, polarisation, and direction of wave incidence on the body, and anatomical features of the exposed person, including height, body-mass index, posture, and dielectric properties of the tissues. Induced fields within the body are highly non-uniform, varying over several orders of magnitude, with local hotspots….When [cell phones are] used by children, the average RF energy deposition is two times higher in the brain and up to ten times higher in the bone marrow of the skull, compared with mobile phone use by adults….In view of the limited evidence in humans and in experimental animals, the Working Group classified RF-EMF as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B). This evaluation was supported by a large majority of Working Group members.”

That the School District 61 WiFi Committee present its recommendation to the Board of Education, School District 61 Greater Victoria, at the Board meeting on October 15, 2012.

Chair Leonard suggested the motion be tabled until September. For [tabling]: Alpha, Ferris, Horsman, Nohr, Orcherton. Against: Loring-Kuhanga, McNally. Absent: McEvoy. Tabled.   The motion did not appear on the September OPPS agenda.

Which brings us to the present.

The School District 61 Ad Hoc Committee on Wi-Fi  met, as advertised, on October 17, 2012 , 5- 7 pm, at the Tolmie Building Board Room. Community members who had politely called ahead to senior administration to attempt to get around the stated ban on public observers (regardless of former Chair Ambeault’s memo statement that all meetings would be public) were denied permission to attend. Two individuals who decided it was their democratic right to attend a meeting that was not designated “In Camera” walked in, sat down, and did attend. Several people who had gathered outside the Tolmie building did not come inside, as they did not wish to challenge the expressed bar on public attendance.

Moral: don’t believe everything you’re told.

The following information about the meeting appears on the School District 61 website.

Purpose: to follow-up on the recommendations made to the Board of Education at the June 13, 2011 Operations Policy and Planning Committee Meeting.

Membership: Two members from each of SD61’s partner groups: Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, Canadian Union of Public Employees – Local 382 Canadian Union of Public Employees – Local 947, Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association Allied Specialists’ Association  (no website), and the Victoria Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association (no website). Two members of the District Leadership Team and two Trustees.  (The Chair was appointed – over the entire existence of the Committee – by the Superintendent, contrary to District Bylaw  on Ad Hoc Committees.)

Previous meetings:The Monday May 2 2011 Minutes are particularly interesting.

Methodology: As per the June 13, 2011 recommendation (above) to the Board, the Wi-Fi Committee will review any new documentation from VIHA,, the Provincial Health Officer,  Health Canada  and the World Health Organization  with regard to the use of Wi-Fi in schools and will review any written submissions received from the public. No public presentations received at the October 17 meeting. All written public submissions to the committee must be received electronically by October 9, 2012. [Several submissions bounced back to anxious senders due to “banned content”, surprising the senders. After my query, this was fixed.] All written submissions received on or before October 9, 2012, will be circulated to the committee members on October 10th, 2012. This will allow time for committee members to review, in advance, each submission of new information not available to the committee in 2011.

Updates : Board Chair’s letter to Dr. Stanwick, and Dr Stanwick’s reply (above) ;Web links submitted to the WiFi Committee

I suggested we follow District policy and the applicable Bylaw  and elect a chair for the first time in the Committee’s history, before proceeding. The previously appointed chair appointed received the majority of votes, while I received the minority. Bylaw 9140 Ad Hoc Committee of the Board, Article 5, states that a Chair shall be chosen at the first meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. In two years of existence of the Committee (one year in hiatus) , a Chair was never elected. The former SD61 Secretary-Treasurer simply assumed the Chair for the first two years. Award-winning investigative journalist Rob Wipond reported on the Committee functioning during that time in in Focus Magazine, March 2011(Can WiFi Harm Kids?)

No minutes were to be provided after October 17 (a specific question was asked about that) – I’m not sure why, as there are minute of the other meetings  – so there will be no official minutes. Once again, this will be the the record, off the record. [As I am posting this after the OPPS meeting of November 13, I might as well tell you: Surprise! Just found out at OPPS, a month later,  that there will be official minutes, posted on the SD61 website.]

Attendees: Two persons in public seating. Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (VCPAC quorum set at 15 schools out of 47 ) : Cami, Darcy; Principals and Vice Principals: Deb, Louise; Allied Specialists: Melanie, Lise, SD61 Information Technology: Ted; CUPE 947: Kerry; GVTA: David, Michael; SD61 Senior Administration: Pat; Trustees: Tom, Diane. CUPE 382 declined to send a representative.

The discussion consisted of statements in favour of the precautionary principle on one side, and perceptions that WiFi access can “positively affect learning”.

  • The Chair reiterated that the mandate of this meeting was not to determine whether WiFi is safe or not, but to continue to monitor “the experts” and what they are telling us.
  • Middle schools and high schools were WiFi’d before the Committee had finished meeting and before any recommendation was voted by the Board, (all middle and high schools have WiFi access, as well as one elementary School, George Jay), and that several cancers had occurred in staff and there was at least one EMF sensitive student in Mount Douglas High School and Campus View Elementary School, both close to the University of Victoria cell towers.
  • At one non-elementary site WiFi has been available for administration for years but the connection is “iffy”. At another, a hybrid WiFi – wired approach is used.
  • SD61 has activated “enterprise wireless”, which is different from consumer wireless like D-Link. Enterprise wireless was said to power down when not used, unlike consumer wireless. It can be an expensive rollout. Some teaching staff are reportedly using personal phones as wireless hotspots for students, or bringing in routers, which subverts network monitoring by District IT.
  • Installing WiFi equipment that emits on demand and is installed in the “least obstructive way” is the Precautionary Approach t how WiFi is installed.
  • SD61 has not installed any further Wireless Access Points since June 2011. Reportedly, teachers have set up their own in 11 locations.
  • Value vs risk is the basis for this conversation. (Reportedly, Saanich, which banned Wifi for student use in K-5 school is now working on a protocol for K-5 schools to request installation.)
  • Cell phones have been in use for 20 years and concerns are only surfacing now.
  • European jurisdictions have gone back to more hard-wired access and in some cases are looking at fibre optics.
  • The SD61 Waterworks data system can’t be accessed via WiFi.
  • Where is the plan for SD61 WiFi related device rollout? If Microsoft tablets were used, USB sticks could be used, but iPads don’t allow that. The three most useful educational apps are prohibitively costly.
  • What is driving the WiFi agenda? The former chair of the committee is now working with ERAC, which had a plan for WiFi rollout in hard copy in 2007.
  • Uses for students with special needs who can’t always access a laptop can be exciting and useful, but testing of emf levels needs to be done.
  • Is there any research on learning? [Individual haspublished peer reviewed brain research at the PhD level and says there is little dispute that there are biological effects, genomic change, and health effects that take time to show up. Err on the side of caution; wired situations could well be best for K-5 schools.
  • Ad hoc installations would still be in schools and SD61 must develop an appropriate process for schools to make an application.
  • VCPAC rep reports VCPAC has no position on WiFi this at this time [despite requesting the June 2011 final recommendation date] but would like specific information about locations in all schools, %age of area covered, and measurements from IT.
  • SD61 does not have specific equipment to measure EMF, but has used the “walk around with a laptop and look at the bars” method, and installs according to government recommendations.
  • WorkSafe has standards for EMF exposure.

The meeting ended with development of a recommendation to develop a protocol for schools to submit to get Wifi in the school. After my motion that SD61 adhere to the Precautionary Principle and institute a moratorium on further WiFi rollout in K-5 schools was voted down,  I  requested an addition to the recommendation: to keep one K-5 school WiFi free, as in BCCPAC AGM Resolutions 17 and 18. This suggestion was not incorporated in the motion.

The recommendation to develop a protocol for schools to use to apply for WiFi installation by the District IT team was voted on, and carried, with four votes against (and pro-Precautionary Principle) : Against: Diane McNally, Trustee; David Futter and Michael Dodd, GVTA; Lisa Armitage, Allied Specialists (psychologist).

Answers to my questions regarding further rollout and what to do about current individual creation of wireless access points (WAPs) that bypass PL Net : there will be no further installations of WiFi while the protocol is being developed, and nothing can be done about the individual “ad hoc” hot spots and routers.

Questions about why wireless access is needed in a K-5 setting were not addressed in this forum, although one participant did ask the question. There are critics of the BC Ed Plan’s tech enthusiasm out there, among them  Staffroom Confidential, written by a former IT teacher.

Many Silicon Valley executives send their children to a Waldorf School in the area that provides no Internet access until Grade 8.

Another interesting critical look at the WiFi K-12  juggernaut:  Why Bring Your Own Device Is A Disaster Waiting To Happen for Schools: Cult Of Mac: Ryan Faas: “However, having worked in educational IT (with both public and private schools), I have to say that the idea of launching BYOD at the K-12 level makes me shudder. There are several serious concerns that should be forefront in the minds of school IT staff, administrators, teachers, and parents about BYOD in schools. Here are some of the big ones.”

Late note: At the OPPS meeting last night, November 14, VCPAC requested that the WiFi committee report be put on hold until January or February until VCPAC has  further study of the issue (remember the previous request from VCPAC to have the recommendation go to OPPS in June 2011). I voted for this postponement as David Morrison may refile his suit against the Portland Public Schools alleging negative effects of EMF on his child, a student in Portland Schools.

Why am I thinking of Kurt Vonnegut?  Po-tee-weet?

Po-tee-weet?