WIFI ISSUES IN SCHOOLS

img10Once again the safety of WiFi use has been in the news and once again the media has got it all wrong. Earlier this month our Provincial organization released its position paper, A position regarding the use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, including WiFi, in the workplace. The position paper is available on the OECTA website and I encourage everyone to read it as it appears that those in the media have not.

Many of you may have heard our Provincial President, Kevin O’Dwyer, being interviewed by those who have simplified the Provincial position to that of wanting a ban of WiFi and having it removed from our schools. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Concerns over the safety of wireless technology in the classroom are not new. Ironically you can view at least two Youtube® documentary articles, produced by the same news organizations that are portraying us incorrectly in the headlines. Checkout Youtube®; CBC (Health Dangers of WiFi in Schools) and Global (WiFi in schools proven dangerous).

Over a year ago, the OECTA Provincial Health and Safety Committee began studying the issue of the use of wireless technology in our workplace. We are not alone, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) are doing the same thing. The group researched the issues thoroughly from not only the scientific aspects but also considering Occupational Health and Safety legislation and the perspective of a Union’s duty to advocate for and represent all OECTA members. The committee review culminated with a presentation to the OECTA Council of Presidents (OECTA Unit Presidents and Provincial Executive) in December by a renowned expert in the field, Dr. Magda Havas of Trent University. You can see what Dr. Havas has to say on Youtube® in her article; WiFi in Schools is Safe: True or False?

The OECTA position paper does not dispute Health Canada’s advice that this type of microwave radiation is deemed statistically ‘safe’ nor does it call for a ban or the removal of existing WiFi. It points out that radiation hazards are not a black and white issue of “safe” or “not safe”, questions the single safety criteria (thermal effects) that are used by Health Canada and calls for a prudent avoidance strategy. WiFi is just another tool in the classroom and as such requires thoughtful planning and monitoring for its safe implementation.

Like it or not WiFi transmitters emit microwave radiation but it is not the base or ‘beacon’ signal produced by each transmitter that is the issue. As more and more users log on to any WiFi system each new device adds yet another microwave emitter making the overall exposure of workers and students unpredictable.

The Provincial organization therefore calls for the local Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC) to treat the tools of wireless technology as they would any other tool or machine brought into the workplace. The JHSC at the local level should “assess the risk of injury from the potential hazard, recommend controls to be applied to address the hazards, and to monitor the effectiveness of the applied controls.”

The OECTA position paper offers practical controls that speak to the continued and appropriate use of WiFi technology in the schools while ensuring, as much as possible, that there is no undue exposure to radiation that may, at some point, show up as a definitive hazard much like that of asbestos or the use of tobacco did.

Locally, our director has ceased WiFi installations in our schools for now. Your JHSC had recommended that the board “create a WiFi Internet/networking implementation program, in consultation with the Joint Health and Safety Committees, that address the issues of hazard assessment, the application of controls and monitoring”. Although this recommendation was not accepted, the board responded that the employer “remains committed to working with various stakeholders, including the JHS Committees, prior to moving forward with any additional WiFi installations”.

If WiFi was activated in our schools today there would be no immediate pedagogical benefit. All of our school computers are hard wired so the only immediate advantage would be that students and teachers could access WiFi on their personal computers/smartphones/iPods etc. with little or no program benefit. Ironically this would also encourage use of personal electronic equipment which is clearly contrary to the existing PED policy and possibly abdicates the responsibility of the school board to provide equipment necessary for the working and learning environment.

Regardless, there is nothing in the OECTA position paper that suggests that WiFi could not be used reasonably in schools. Once again I recommend that all OECTA members read the position paper before passing judgement in the same way that the media has. Should any members have any questions regarding the OECTA position on the implementation of WiFi in the workplace they can contact the Worker Co-Chair (Secondary) at health.safety@dpsuoecta.com.