A controversial proposal from a group of Ontario teachers to ban wireless internet technology in schools over concerns it's harming children's health fizzled out Tuesday.
A resolution aiming to get Wi-Fi out of classrooms, put forward by teachers in the Niagara region, was soundly defeated at the annual general meeting of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Health Canada says scientific evidence shows exposure to low-level radiofrequency energy, such as that emitted by Wi-Fi systems, is not dangerous to the public.
But news that a group of central Ontario parents and the group of Niagara-area teachers were pushing for the removal of Wi-Fi from schools because of health concerns has generated a flurry of debate online and elsewhere.
Hundreds of internet commenters have weighed in, with many dismissing the claims as outrageous, but others suggesting it's an idea worth exploring further.
Those opposing views were reflected at the teachers federation meeting, but in the room of more than 500 teachers, most held up red "con" cards Tuesday evening, with just a few dozen supporting the proposal.
One of those who spoke out against the resolution was Kevin Couch, a Toronto-area teacher who said he's never had any parents or students complain about the radiation from wireless technology.
In fact, he said his students are often more than happy to use new technology.
"The World Health Organization is telling us that the levels are acceptable, that they're not a health risk," Couch said moments after the vote.
"I really think it's out of place for us as teachers in the classroom to be determining health care."
Donna Howey, from the Grand Erie region, suggested during the debate that the matter be referred to the teachers' executive for further study.
"I just believe at this point that there is too much evidence on either side," Howey said to the gathered teachers. However, that idea failed to garner the support of the room and was defeated, along with the original resolution.
Terri Beck, who presented the resolution at the teachers' meeting on behalf of the Niagara local union, said she was disappointed by the result, but that she looks forward to discussing the issue with her colleagues in future years and that she would be look at the wording of the resolution.
"We'll have a crack at it again, maybe with some language that other people might be willing to get on board with."
Beck said even though people are surrounded by things like cell phone towers, it "doesn't mean it's safe."
"Children rely on us to make the best decisions for them, and it's our jobs as teachers, as parents, to protect our kids," Beck said.
"And for seven hours a day we do have that ability to keep them away from Wi-Fi, and that was our goal. We can't take it away from everywhere, but we can protect them as a precautionary method for those seven hours."
The resolution asked for teachers to lobby district school boards "to develop policies that prohibit the use of wireless technologies within schools."
Wi-Fi blamed for headaches, nausea
Some parents in central Ontario formed the Simcoe County Safe School Committee when they became concerned Wi-Fi was the cause of headaches and other symptoms their kids experienced during the week but not on weekends and holidays.
Radiofrequency energy levels from Wi-Fi equipment in all areas accessible to the general public, including schools, are required to meet federal safety guidelines, Health Canada said in a statement.
"Levels of radiofrequency energy emitted from Wi-Fi equipment are typically well below these safety limits," Health Canada said.
"As long as exposure in schools is below these established limits, there is no convincing scientific evidence that this equipment is dangerous to schoolchildren."
But that hasn't stopped parents from urging the Simcoe County District School Board to turn off the Wi-Fi and use hard-wire connections to access the internet. The board has said no such action will be taken because there is no evidence to show children are being made ill by the wireless technology in their classrooms.
Terri Beck presented the resolution Tuesday at the teachers' meeting on behalf of the Niagara local union. It asked teachers to lobby district school boards "to develop policies that prohibit the use of wireless technologies within schools."
"Parents and teachers are concerned for kids; they're concerned for their developing minds, their developing bodies," said Beck, the vice-president of the Niagara local.
She said even though wireless technology is all around, it's about minimizing children's exposure.
Beck said there is scientific information on both sides of the debate, but listed headaches, concentration difficulties, memory problems and restlessness as possible problems kids could face.
"We know that kids are in school for seven hours a day," Beck said. "We as teachers are not trying to limit the access that kids have to technology.
"We're asking instead that kids are plugged in — not using wireless technology."
The idea for the resolution came from a union member who Beck said is speaking out as both a parent and a teacher.
In Barrie, Ont., at least one parent said he was looking into other schooling options for his two children in September if their classrooms are still wireless. Parents belonging to the Simcoe County Safe School Committee say they realized their children were displaying the same sort of symptoms as the Niagara children — headaches, dizziness and nausea — and that the problems went away when kids weren't in school.
Education minister waiting to hear Ottawa's response
Ontario Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky said the question of whether wireless internet technology is safe in Ontario schools is in the federal government's hands.
"This is a responsibility of Health Canada to ensure that these technologies ... are safe," she said outside the teachers' meeting.
"That's what we're asking them to look into."
Dombrowsky said she is expecting an answer "within weeks" from the federal health minister after sending a letter with parents' complaints. Her ministry has received complaints from the Simcoe area and the Peterborough area so far, she said.
"The best information that I have from Health Canada and the World Health Organization very much conflicts with what has been presented by families," Dombrowsky said.
Progressive Conservative education critic Elizabeth Witmer said with both parents and teachers raising concerns about Wi-Fi in classrooms, Dombrowsky has an obligation to deal with the issue and not try to punt the problem to Ottawa.
"I couldn't believe that response from the minister," said Witmer.
"The problem seems to be the health of the students in the schools, and for her to just casually try to give the federal government the responsibility is totally inadequate.
"The McGuinty government and the Ministry of Education have a responsibility to take a look at the issue because this is what the parents and teachers are asking for."
In a letter dated Aug. 16, Ontario NDP health critic France Gélinas called on the province's chief medical officer of health to give "clear public health guidelines for exposure to Wi-Fi technology for different age groups, including school aged children."
Gélinas said she has heard from many parents who are worried about the symptoms their children show when they are exposed to microwave radiation from wireless technology.