Wi-Fi debate rages on

School board trustees defeat motion to purchase RF meter

Greater Victoria board of education trustees have once again heard impassioned arguments on the safety of Wi-Fi, and the debate isn’t likely to end any time soon.

Trustee Deborah Nohr, during an operations, policy and planning meeting on May 13, brought forward a motion to purchase a radiofrequency (RF) meter to regularly monitor electromagnetic radiation levels and ensure all are within limits set to a precautionary level of 1,000 microwatts per square-metre. While the motion went unsupported by the committee on May 13, despite commentary from invited guests speaking to electromagnetic exposure and RF meters, the loss by no means marks an end to the questions around wireless Internet use in elementary schools.

“While we’re getting all these (Internet) access points in our schools, we have no idea if we’re meeting Health Canada’s standards,” said Nohr, who planned on bringing forward an amended motion using Health Canada’s higher threshold to the board of education during the May 21 meeting after the News deadline.

Nohr would like to see the meter brought to schools for testing, similar to how air quality tests are conducted.

“I have a deep-seated opinion (that) health safety and the safety of children is prime,” she said, adding that the effects of Wi-Fi simply are not known.

In January, 2011, the board formed a committee on Wi-Fi and a moratorium on wireless Internet was implemented across the district. It was installed in every high school and one elementary school prior to the committee’s formation. The issue lay untouched for some time before last November when the board passed a motion to review documentation from the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the Provincial Health Officer, Health Canada and the World Health Organization, as well as written submissions from the public with regard to the use of Wi-Fi in schools. They then developed an application process whereby elementary schools may apply for the use of Wi-Fi. With 100 per cent parent support, Victor Street School, an 18-student K-12 alternative school, applied to have Wi-Fi installed in March 2013.

The Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils is currently drafting a survey for all parents to weigh in on the topic this spring before the board makes any final decisions on Wi-Fi use.

“There’s been a fairly strong lobby from parents who are opposed and there hasn’t been a lot from other parents,” said John Bird, president of VCPAC. “It’s safety on the one hand and educational opportunity on the other: those are really the two sides of the issue,” Bird said.

The cost of hard-wired versus wireless Internet has yet to enter the discussion for VCPAC.

“It’s a difficult one because from what I can tell, there’s no definitive evidence on either side. It’s a fairly hot issue that doesn’t seem to be restricted to our jurisdiction. This issue is going on all over the world.”

Board chairperson Peg Orcherton said those opposed to the use of wireless technology in schools belong to a small, but vocal group and the discussion could benefit from the balance offered by a broader parent survey. The issue is further muddied by experts arguing all sides of Wi-Fi use.

“It’s difficult,” Orcherton said. “I look at their CVs and they look very professional and very knowledgable, then I look at the other side and I see the same thing. I’m not a scientist, but I am interested in kids’ safety, so we’ll see where it goes.”

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