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The global footprint of coronavirus – COVID-19 – is expanding and national governments as well as regional school districts are making the difficult decision to shutdown the schools. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared it a “pandemic” and all of Canada’s education ministers participated in a teleconference to discuss the situation and potential policy responses, specifically following the annual March break for students and teachers.

Political leaders at the highest levels, working closely with public health authorities, are weighing their emergency measures options to combat the pandemic, ranging from school closures to mass quarantines. Closing schools may be politically expedient, but its effectiveness in curbing transmission is far from clear.

School closures have already interrupted the public education of some 300 million students across the globe. The first nation to close schools was Hong Kong, back in January, then Japan on February 27, and now many more jurisdictions have followed suit, including Italy, South Korea, Iran, France, Pakistan, New Delhi, the New York City region and northern Washington State.

Deciding to close schools in the case of COVID-19 is particularly challenging for one major reason. In the initial wave, the novel coronavirus, unlike HIN1 in 2009, had not affected children at high rates. Out of 44,672 initial confirmed cases in China, fewer than 2 per cent occurred in children under 19 years of age, and no deaths were recorded among those younger than 10 years old. That may be a low estimate because the attack rate for children, at a later stage in Shenzhen, was 13 per cent.

Closing schools, in some previous epidemics, has proven helpful in reducing transmission of seasonal flu among children. One 2013 British Medical Journal report, based upon a systematic review of epidemiological studies, concluded that school closures contained rates of transmission, even in the absence of other intentions. Yet determining “the optimal school closure strategy” remained “unclear” because of the wide variation in its forms of implementation.

Tracking the impact of school closures has proven tricky for researchers.  Some closures were limited to individual schools and, in other cases, whole school systems. Closing before the peak of the outbreak or well into the outbreak suggests that decisions are being made as either a precaution or a reaction to rising student influenza-related absenteeism. In some cases, schools close so children can receive antiviral medicines or vaccines, or in conjunction with a strategy of “social distancing.”  Such wide variations in implementation strategies makes it a challenge in determining which change actually affected transmission.

The body of research on school closure impacts during epidemics is surprisingly large, encompassing the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the 2002-03 SARS pandemic, and the 2009 HINI flu outbreak.

Yet the results of those school closures have been mixed. Closing schools for more than two weeks has been linked to lower transmission rates in Hong Kong (seasonal and pandemic flus) and in England (H1N1), but not so in Peru (pandemic) or the United States (during seasonal flu epidemics).

The 2008 Hong Kong outbreak, the 1957 epidemic experience of France, and the 1918 pandemic records in some U.S. cities demonstrate that shutting schools can have no discernible impact, especially if decisions come too late in the cycle of the outbreak. Relying upon older parents or grandparents to be caregivers during closures may actually increase mortality rates among more susceptible populations.

Public heath experts caution educational leaders and school principals against basing decisions on the North American H1N1 experience. “The sensitivity of the 2009 pandemic to school closures probably relates to the high attack rates in children compared with adults,” the BMJ study pointed out. “Outbreaks in which children are less affected” such as COVID-19, “might be less sensitive to school closure.”

Closing schools also has broader socio-economic impacts and unrecognized health effects. There are trade-offs in being overly cautious by closing schools, including potential lengthy disruptions in student learning and compelling parents to stay home from work. Students from lower socio-economic neighbourhoods would also be deprived of school meal programs and cost-free supervised athletics activities.

The most authoritative study of school closure impacts, in the August 2009 issue of The Lancet, actually assesses broader community impacts. If all U.K. schools closed, some 30 per cent of health and social care workers would be taken out of commission, compounding adverse effects on the financial health and viability of communities.

School authorities would be well-advised to consider the potential duration of closures in their emergency response plans.  While it is probably wise to err on the side of caution with school-age children, the longer the closure lasts, the more problematic it becomes, especially in the absence of e-learning bridge programs.

Closing schools for more than two weeks to combat COVID-19, as in the case of Hong Kong, could have a detrimental effect upon the school schedule, year-end-examinations, and the conventional grade- promotion system. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that students will be seriously set back by missing so much instructional time.

Implementing “e-learning plans,” including digital and distance learning, is recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s a major problem with that constructive proposal in its guide for school administrators. It’s feasible in e-learning ready school systems like those in Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and the State of Ohio, but not yet in our provincial school systems.

Few Canadian school districts are prepared or trained to implement e-learning days system-wide, and they have, with few exceptions, resisted piloting e-leaning modules during winter season storm days.  Scrambling to implement hastily prepared distance learning or online courses will not prove effective at all. Nor are schools fully equipped to administer year-end assessments online or to report the results electronically to students and parents.

Closing schools may be expedient in assuring the concerned public that actions are being taken to control the spread of the contagion. This is especially so now that managing the fears and anxieties of children and families is emerging as a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the lower attack rates for children and the weight of research evidence, it’s much harder to make the call to dismiss classes and suspend school for what may well be an indeterminate period of time.

 Should schools be closed to contain and reduce the transmission of the 2019-20 coronavirus?  What does past experience closing schools during epidemics tell us?  Should schools be closed early in the cycle as a precaution or in reaction to escalating attack rates among children and their teachers? How prepared are school districts to implement e-learning as a bridge in the teaching-learning process?  If schools do close, the question is — for how long given the unpredictability of the spreading contagion?  

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 11, 2020. 

Implementing true inclusive education is one of the most formidable challenges facing Canadian provincial school systems.  Scanning the Inclusion and Special Education policy landscape from province to province, New Brunswick stands out as an outlier. The so-called “New Brunswick Model” adopted in 2006 and formally confirmed in 2012-13 focuses almost exclusively on integrating all students into regular or mainstream classes.

DominicCardyInclusionEducation Minister Dominic Cardy’s recent announcement of a New Brunswick inclusion policy review was welcomed by concerned parents and teachers. Defenders of the existing inclusion model under Policy 322 reacted with dismay and trepidation, and for good reason.  Public consultations have revealed, once again, that the total inclusion classroom is not working for every student nor for far too many regular teachers.  While former Education Minister Jody Carr and his entourage are travelling the world promoting that model, it is on decidedly shaky ground at home.

Everyone today supports inclusive education and there can be no turning back.  Societal changes, human rights advocacy, and the growing complexity of classrooms in terms of capabilities, language, race, ethnicity and gender have combined to forge a broader commitment to truly inclusive education.

What looked progressive fourteen years ago when Wayne MacKay proposed the current N.B. inclusion model has now been superseded by newer, more flexible and more responsive approaches better suited to meeting the full range of student needs. We are also now more attuned to significant differences on the question of how to achieve meaningful, properly-resourced inclusion for all students across the full spectrum of abilities.

A lot is at stake in the latest review of inclusive education policy. That is because the so-called ‘New Brunswick Model’ is a provincial export product and is being considered for implementation in Ireland. An October 2019 report from the Irish National Council on Special Education (NCSE), heavily influenced by Carr’s policy advocacy, tilted in the direction of adopting a ‘total inclusion model’ and it has inspired a fierce debate in Ireland.

The proposed policy reform has put New Brunswick education under the microscope. No other Canadian province has chosen to follow the N.B. inclusion path, and this has been duly noted by vocal critics of the whole scheme in the widely-read Irish Times newspaper.

Much has been made of UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas-Aguilar’s commendation of New Brunswick for its compliance with international human rights declarations. That was, it must be noted, one of the only positive mentions in her report which critiqued almost every other province for their ‘uneven application’ of policies across all public services, including heath, education, housing and transit.

Many educators and researchers in Ireland are puzzled as to why the N.B. model emerged as a preferred option when it is at odds with inclusive policy elsewhere. Most provinces, including neighbouring Nova Scotia, offer ‘inclusive education’ with options ranging from integration into regular classrooms to special ‘resource’ classes to specialized programs in alternative school settings.

Defenders of the N.B. model were rocked a year ago by a series of Toronto Globe and Mail investigative stories focusing on whether “inclusive classrooms” were working for most if not all students. The deeply moving story of Grayson Kahn, a 7-year-old Ontario boy with autism excluded from his school for assaulting an Education Assistant, captured nation-wide attention. It also departed from the usual script – extolling the virtues of inclusion – and, instead, raised serious questions about the difficulties of accommodating children with complex needs in regular classrooms.

Teachers in Canada, including many in New Brunswick, are reporting a dramatic rise in violent incidents disrupting their classrooms, and rising tensions with families who feel their regular stream children are at risk. For the past five years, periodic concerns have been voiced by the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) over threats to the safety of teachers and education assistants.

Some educators in the Globe and Mail series addressed the so-called ‘elephant in the classroom,’ daring to wonder if inclusion has gone too far for students with very complex needs.  Inclusiveness will not work, they claimed, without “a thoughtful rethinking of how we teach children with diverse needs and how we structure the school day.”

School districts in Canada are beginning to acknowledge the need for “time out rooms” to allow students experiencing meltdowns space and time to recover. Families with children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are increasingly being asked to pick up kids early, start the school day later or simply keep them home for the entire day.

Complicating matters is the fact that apart from a few advocacy or parent group surveys, most Canadian school districts, including those in New Brunswick, didn’t formally track these exclusions or shortened days until recently mandated to do so.

The N.B. inclusion system is full of holes, judging from concerns raised by parents and teachers during Minister Cardy’s current round of consultations.  Co-founder of Riverbend Community School in Moncton, Rebecca Halliday, was one of those speaking up for changes. She has fought an uphill battle for five years to establish a school for severely learning challenged students. Her struggles mirror those of hundreds of parents and families effectively ‘excluded’ by the total inclusion classroom policy and practice.

Conducting a provincial review opens the door, once again, to providing support for the most severely challenged students and need relief for their exhausted parents. What Halliday’s school struggle amply demonstrates is that it will not happen in New Brunswick without the introduction of a tuition support program being extended to students and families without the means to pay the tuition themselves.

Such a program exists in Nova Scotia where, since September 2004, provincial education authorities have offered a Tuition Support Program (TSP). It not only plugged the service gap, but broadened public access to intensive support programs designed for students with acute learning difficulties. Under the TSP, a small number of private, independent Special Education schools  (DSEPS) (Grade 3–12) not only exist, but fill the gap by providing a vitally important lifeline in the continuum of student support services.

Inclusion is an ideal to which most advanced education countries, provinces and states aspire.  One of the best and most influential international statements, the Salamanca Statement on Principles and Practice in Special Needs Education (UNESCO 1994), continues to inform much of the current policy on inclusive education. Children should be learning together in schools – but not necessarily in one particular setting.

With the exception of New Brunswick, provincial ministries of education take their cue from the Salamanca Statement and are working toward inclusive education by removing barriers and improving student supports across a range of program service options, including intensive support for children with the most complex needs. Today, inclusive education is the overriding philosophy and the real challenge is to ensure that students, parents, and service providers find the ‘right fit’ for every child or teen.

Winning a September 2016 Zero Project prize and recent praise from a UN agency, it turns out, is a dubious honour for New Brunswick because it involves expending so much time and energy defending a regular class setting for everyone, when some fare far better in smaller classes with more intensive resource support and others thrive with more individualized attention.

Instead of merely complying with a UN philosophical declaration, Minister Cardy and the Department would be better advised to study carefully the findings of Nova Scotia’s 2018 Inclusive Education Commission and its prescription. Following that extensive and comprehensive review, Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in building a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), much better aligned with best practice and evidence-informed research.

  • An earlier version of this post appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, March 5, 2020.

Tackling inclusion stirs up passions and raises sensitive issues, but it’s time to address the key policy questions: Will the New Brunswick Model ever work, given the complex challenges in today’s classrooms?  What are the real and unintended consequences of mandatory inclusion in the absence of other viable, attractive or effective alternatives?  Is the properly-resourced all-inclusive classroom model feasible or sustainable?  If the N>B. model is optimal, why are school districts everywhere tilting more in the direction of implementing MTSS and attempting to support everyone across the full continuum of needs? 

 

Students are now coming down with seasonal colds and the flu.  What was predicted to be a normal flu season in schools turned ou out to be highly unpredictable with the arrival of a ghost menace – the fear of coronavirus, now labelled COVID-19.  Public anxieties were fed by a popular media inundated with frightening stories about the spectre of coronavirus, rivaling that associated with the outbreak of SARS in 2002-2003. The latest scare also sparked a disturbing undercurrent of suspicion, with racist undertones, directed at Canadians of Chinese ancestry.

The common flu remains a bigger threat than coronavirus but you would never know it from the media coverage.  Some 25,854 confirmed cases of the regular flu have been reported since late August 2019, and, so far, the coronavirus, has only infected a dozen Canadians. Some 12,200 Canadians are hospitalized for influenza each year and about 1,000 die across Canada. In 2002-2003, for comparison purposes, 44 people died of SARS in Canada.

Normally calm Public Health authorities are now forecasting an uptick in cases throughout February into March. Teachers and principals will be on the front lines because schools are well-known breeding grounds for germs and infections.

This flu season it is going to be worse because, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the country is seeing an unusually high number of Influenza B cases, which tend to cause more severe illness in children. Of the 33,615 reported Canadian influenza cases (up until February 8, 2020), 11,905 were classified as Type B, with 57 per cent of those patients under 20 years-of-age. Reported Influenza B cases were also more common in the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Face masks are disappearing from pharmacy shelves as people are either wearing them outside or hoarding them in the event of a global pandemic. Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Robert Strang claims that the masks are not guaranteed to offer protection and may encourage people to touch their faces, actually spreading the germs.

The global outbreak is Chinese in origin and that most regrettably still carries insidious connotations. It may have originated in Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, where some 57 million citizens were placed in a state of lockdown and isolation, but exaggerated fears and anxieties have spread worldwide. The two-week ordeal of international tourists trapped on the quarantined and virus-ravaged Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored in Yokohama, Japan, further fed public anxieties.

Combating and surviving the flu season in school used to be so much easier. Counselling students and teachers to stay home, drink fluids, and get rest used to suffice in weathering the seasonal onslaught. Most of us fooled ourselves into thinking that miracle cures for the cold and flu like Cold-FX were actually working and toughed it out with Tylenol, Hall’s cough drops, and, on a bad day, toilet tissue kleenex.

Today’s principals, teachers, and students come to school prepared with new weapons in the ongoing war against contagion. Wiping down desks with disinfectants and packing little bottles of Purex in pockets and purses is now standard practice. A few even don surgical masks to keep colds in, or ward them off, walking to and from school.

Fear and panic are running high in Ontario and British Columbia school districts where many of the students are Chinese Canadians or recent arrivals of Chinese descent. Vocal and active parents are clamouring for schools to increase screening of Chinese students suspected of being carriers and sending home children whose families have recently returned from China.

Coronavirus-induced tensions are most acute in York Region, north of Toronto, particularly in Richmond Hill and Markham, where 40 per cent of the population is of Chinese origin. A coronavirus-inspired petition targeting Chinese families launched in late January in York Region, north of Toronto, was quickly endorsed by parents in 145 local schools and generated some 10,000 signatures. In the York Region District Board of Education, Board Chair Juanita Nathan and Education Director Louise Sirisko, were compelled to send out a memorandum to all schools in direct response to the level of concern and anxiety being felt by families of Chinese heritage.

While the province of Nova Scotia is home to some 3,500 Chinese-born students, the only public display of concern was by Max Chen, a second-year Chinese student at Cape Breton University. After searching in vain for surgical masks to send home, he voiced his concern that the province’s public health officials were unprepared to deal with a potential outbreak at the university.

Public health officials, educators and academics are fearful of schools and universities becoming swept-up in an us-versus-them cycle of racism directed at those who look different. Spreading of misinformation and ignoring facts from public health agencies is symptomatic of deeper, sublimated problems.

A leading SARS impact researcher, York University’s Harris Ali, who studied the stigmatization of the Chinese population in Canada, put it best. Gaslighting the Chinese as carriers of the contagion, he claims “feeds into already pre-existing underlying biases or prejudices.”

Global pandemics turn flu season into a mass psychological experience that can overshadow the actual health risks of transmission. Calming and dispelling exaggerated fears as well as sanitizing desks have now become the essential skills in a 21st-century educator’s repertoire. That may be a clear indicator of the high anxiety temper of our times.

Why was the current flu season so unpredictable in our schools?  Were Canadian public health authorities ready for the surge in Influenza B, the strain most commonly infecting young people of school age?  Are principals and teachers fully prepare to deal with students showing signs of coronavirus?  What are the challenges posed by containing the spread of viruses while ensuring that students and families of Chinese ancestry are not unfairly targeted in the broader community? 

*An earlier version of this commentary was published in The Chronicle Herald, February 15, 2020.

One of Canada’s most prized educational innovations, French immersion programs for Anglophone children, continues to generate fierce debate in various parts of the country.  Since its inception in 1965 in a small school in the Montreal suburb of St. Lambert, QC,, it has spread right across Canada, actively promoted by Canadian Parents for French (CPF), and exceedingly popular among affluent, upwardly-mobile parents seeking every advantage for their children. The French Immersion Dream, espoused by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was that the program would succeed in producing a new generation of more fluently bilingual Canadians.

Great progress has been made in integrating French immersion into provincial school systems, but the Dream remains as elusive as ever. While the 2016 Canadian census showed an overall increase in the national bilingualism rate, from 17.5% in 2011 to 17.9% in 2016, the proportion was significantly lower among Canadians whose mother tongue is English (9.2%) or another language (11.7%). Perhaps most telling of all, French immersion is floundering in Canada’s only “officially bilingual province,” New  Brunswick, right next door to largely French-speaking Quebec.  

Accessing the opportunity to enrol in French immersion remains a challenge. Some 79% of bilingual Anglophones surveyed in a 2016 survey reported that they learned French in elementary or high school. They also identified the lack of access to French as a Second Language (FSL) courses as a continuing impediment to learning a second official language. One of the most critical contributing factors is the shortage of teachers with the French language proficiency to deliver the programs, particularly in French immersion, where the requirements are much higher than in the reguar stream.

The problems with French immersion in New Brunswick demonstrate, in microcosm, some of the challenges faced by education authorities everywhere outside of Quebec.  While hailed as Canada’s “only officially bilingual province,” making that a reality through changes in education has proven much easier said than done. A year ago, N.B. Auditor General Kim MacPherson produced the latest evidence that French immersion was falling far short of its primary objective of producing more fluently bilingual graduates.

Finding the optimal French Immersion program in the Anglophone school sector has proven elusive to a succession of governments. Three times since 2008 major changes have been introduced in the provincial program, shifting the entry point from Grade 1 to 3 and back again.  In 2015-16, an Intensive/Post-Intensive French program was started in Grades 4 -12.  Current Education Minister Dominic Cardy is so concerned about the problem that he has waded, once again, into what has proven to be a political minefield, arousing language passions on all sides.

N.B. Auditor General MacPherson delivered a clinical analysis of the sorry state of French immersion in Anglophone school districts. That’s significant because French immersion, in 2016-17, enrolled some 40 per cent of all students in the Anglophone sector.

French immersion was far from its fundamental goal of producing a functionally bilingual generation. Just 10 per cent of the 1,624 anglophone students who entered French immersion in Grade 1 back in 2005, the AG reported, actually achieved the N.B. Education Department’s proficiency target of “advanced or better” upon Grade 12 graduation. Some two-thirds had dropped out of French immersion before graduation. Of those who did not drop out of the program, a disappointing 40 per cent met the expected standard.

The N.B. Department of Education’s official “Everyone at their best” French as a Second Language (FSL) slide show strikes an optimistic tone and gives no indication whatsoever that French immersion is floundering in the province. “Grade 1 entry to FI was successfully introduced in September 2017 and will be the only early entry point in September 2020,” it proclaims.

MacPherson was sharply critical of the latest Grade 1 entry point implementation. “Because of rushed implementation,” she found, “school districts could not recruit enough qualified teachers to meet the implementation timeline.“ Teachers lacking the requisite “language proficiency” were hired, she reported, and “significant resources were directed to implementation, and this impacted student performance across the sector.”

The AG’s report also broke an education sector taboo. Some 90 per cent of N.B. students on personalized leaning plans – serving students with identified learning difficulties – were in the English stream, MacPherson reported, making it “very difficult to teach” in those classes. That confirmed what the weight of research elsewhere has shown: French immersion effectively skims-off most of the academically able students.

What can be done to change the trajectory and produce more anglophone students capable of conversing and working in French in that province — and perhaps elsewhere?  Education Minister Cardy is going to launch pilot projects to test alternatives in FSL education.  It may well ultimately involve scaling back on the province-wide commitment to single-track French immersion.

Single-track French immersion is not the only way to enhance and advance French as a Second Language (FSL) programming, and, in every jurisdiction, it tends to peter-out in the final grades of high school. It rarely even reaches students from more economically disadvantaged communities.

Parent demands for French immersion for their children became so high in some Canadian urban metropolitan school districts that it threatened to crowd out regular program schools. Some more successful Ontario school districts, such as Halton District School Board, for example, responded by offering double-track French immersion and multi-track programs with advanced hybrid French language options, utilizing elements of FI. Meeting those demands continues to be a challenge in Halton District and in Peel Region, west of Metropolitan Toronto.

Some of the proposed N.B. pilot schools should be modelling and testing the dual track and multi-track models combining French immersion for the most disciplined fully-committed students, Extended Core French for those seeking enrichment, and Core French for those struggling to read or to survive the daily rigours of school.

Starting with Grade 1 in September 2020, there is an opportunity to pilot double-track and multi-track FSL programs. It makes good sense to look to Montreal, Quebec, for English schools that have higher success rates in producing students with bilingual graduation certificates. Extended or Expanded Core French (wherein students take two or three of the six core subjects in French, in addition to a French class over the whole year) is working in some Montreal English language schools and might well prove popular in the province. If nothing else, it has all but eliminated the extraordinarily high student attrition problem affecting most single-track FI models everywhere.

Shifting French immersion entry points back and forth in New Brunswick has done little to inspire confidence in politicians or pliable provincial education officials. It has bred cynicism and strengthened the influence of those advocating leaving everything alone in French language programs. Fixing the problem carries political risks.

Most education initiatives falter because of poor or uneven implementation and the September 2020 timeline looks too rushed. Whatever Minister Cardy and his Department do, let’s hope they follow the Auditor General’s wisest advice. Education strategies, the AG reminded us, should be based upon “expert research, in-depth needs assessment and the best practices” found in other provinces and international jurisdictions. Put more simply, do your preparatory homework and take the time to get it right.

What are the prime impediments to implementing French as a Second Language (FSL) programs like French immersion in Anglophone Canadian schools?  How important is the milieu in which French language learning is actually taking place?  How has the shortage of French teachers with the requisite proficiency compounded the difficulties? Are there viable alternatives to single-track French immersion that might prove more successful in the long run? 

Taking time to really get to know students sounds like good common sense for teachers.  The best teachers, in every school, have always done so while challenging students with high expectations, engaging learning activities, and an intellectually stimulating curriculum. The philosophy, espoused in Dr. David Tanters 2018 Nelson Educators textbook, The Third Path, prescribes something completely different for today’s individualistic and anxiety-filled generation. It also appears to have turned the heads of the educational thinkers mobilizing under the banner of Ontario ASCD, a northern frontier branch of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The central tenets of the The Third Path have also given rise to the “Third Path” movement to promote Relationship-Based Education (RBE).  That movement elevates “teaching through relationships” to a “core value” and proposes a third way forward – what amounts to a 21st century fusion of academics, well-being, and mindfulness.   The “Relationship-based Approach to  Well-Being and Achievement” teacher education program, funded by Nelson Education, features conventional workshops, You Tube videos, podcasts, and weekend conference retreats.

The Third Path pedagogical catechism envisions an imagined educational universe with three distinct paths: Path 1 (academics); Path 2 (well-being); and Path 3 (relationships). Prospective teacher-supporters are exhorted to “Do different, not more. Go deeper, not wider.” The Third Path integrates everything by “shifting the classroom focus from tasks to relationships, from check-lists to check-ins.” Then, the hook: “It views education as a journey of human development, not just for the student, but for the educator too. The Third Path focuses on the how of education.” All of this sounds, feels and looks strange and familiar at the same time.  Strange in its aspirational almost spiritual tone; yet with the familiar ring of romantic progressivism.

The Relationship-Based Approach

Focusing on the student-educator relationship is the first step in “following the Third Path.”  “Caring, intentional and responsive relationships are at the heart of learning and growth.” The focus is almost exclusively on the individual student, and “understanding each student, and truly knowing their strengths, struggles, and needs.”

The Eight Conditions

Third Path educational theory rests upon eight hierarchical conditions that are said to support student well-being and academic achievement. Together these conditions are supposed to “create an environment for students to flourish”:

1. Safety: Students need to feel emotionally safe in order to explore and learn

2. Regulation: Students need regulating relationships and supportive environments.

3. Belonging: Belonging comes from all the moments of connection with others.

4. Positivity: Every student has unseen potential. Positive feelings lead to optimal functioning.

5. Engagement: Engagement is about being fully open to learning, connected to others, able to take on complex challenges, and reach accurate conclusions.

6. Identity: School is important for students’ exposure to a variety of ways of being, and for them to develop a stronger sense of who they truly are.

7. Mastery: A feeling of accomplishment is essential to help motivate students to continue to learn.

8. Meaning: Meaning is a powerful force for ongoing motivation and personal fulfillment.

Surveying this rather dogmatic theoretical framework, encumbered with the label “The Third Path,” informed and engaged educators are bound to wonder if they and their students are being “led along a garden path” to the promised land. The fact that the theory is backed by teachers’ testimonials in the George Lukas Foundation’s education e-magazine Edutopia does little to assuage your natural skepticism about “magic beans” in education.

The principal author of The Third Path, Dr. David Tranter, Professor of Social Work, Lakehead University, is touted as the Third Path movement’s guru and guarantor of the authenticity of its research basis. It all originated, it turns out, in 2014 when the Ontario Ministry of Education released Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, and identified “well-being” as one of the envisioned new pillars of the system.  That was a tribute to the influence of Dr. Stuart Shanker, a York University professor championing “mindfuness” and “self-regulation” as the latest classroom management panaceas.

Tranter’s claim to being a leading researcher rests principally upon a February 2016 Ontario Ministry of Education research note focusing on “self-regulation” and why “stressed students struggle to learn’ in our classrooms. The short, 4-pager, summarizes the academic literature in favour of mindfulness theory and its educational step-child “self-regulation.” “For students who experience ongoing stress,” Tranter concludes, ” learning self-regulation can be a difficult challenge; teachers have an opportunity to make a tremendous difference in these students’ lives.” Virtually all of his references are to the work of leaders in mindfulness research, including Stuart Shanker and John Ratey, author of Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain (2008).

Critical education analysts quickly spot that Third Path theory carries an implicit bias against teaching knowledge and focusing on student achievement. On the cover of the book and between the covers, Path 2 (Well-Being) precedes Path 1 (Academics/Achievement) in order of precedence. Upon closer scrutiny, Path 3 (Relationships) is actually code for student-centered individualized teaching drawing heavily upon mindfulness and self-regulation practices.

All educators today should be skeptical of such simple formulas for success in connecting with, and effectively teaching,  students. Something like “The Third Path” with a strong whiff of mindfulness should raise cautions.  Mindfulfulness has not only gone mainstream, it has emerged as the magic elixir of our present age.

Presented as a peculiar hybrid of science and meditative discipline, its real founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), claims that mindfulness has “the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance.” He has bigger ambitions than just conquering stress. Mindfulness, he claims, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next two hundred years.”

Mindfulness is a recognized therapeutic strategy for individuals properly diagnosed with severe anxieties or debilitating stress. While the leading researchers know its limitations,it has now become a cure-all being introduced and spread to the broader mass of adults through self-help magazines and workshops and to students through the schools. Although derived from Buddhism, it has mass appeal to people seeking spiritual answers outside the church.  Some of the simplified versions. in the hands of amateur enthusiasts, amounts to little more than “concentration training” for hefty professional service fees.

The Third Path movement in Canadian education did not emerge fully formed, out of nowhere.  It’s a small piece of a booming global wellness industry worth over $4-billion. More than 600,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variation of “mindfulness’in their titles, such as Mindful Teaching, Mindful Schools, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Finance, and, believe it or not, Mindful Dog Owners. There is, of course, a Mindfuness Coloring Book, for kids as well as smartphone apps, bells, bracelets, and beauty products. Millions of dollars are being raked-in by educational celebrities on the speaking circuit and by facilitators at adult workshops. Mindfulness based programs have now proliferated in schools, district-after-district, particularly in Ontario, British Columbia, and the Maritimes.

A team of respected British psychiatrists registered major concerns in December of 2016 in a widely-read scientific research paper published in the journal of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The proliferation of academic literature on mindfulness was, in their view, sustained by incomplete or inconclusive evidence-based research and “pervaded by a a lack of conceptual and methodological self-criticism.” Their two primary concerns were:

(1) the uneven benefits of mindfulness meditation: While “some people may benefit” from the meditation, “others will not be affected in a substantive way, and a number of individuals may suffer moderate to serious negative effects.”

(2) the insufficient of inconclusive evidence for its benefits, particularly when mindfulness-based interventions are compared with other activities or interventions.”

“Something has gone wrong with the science of mindfulness,” the British psychiatrists maintained.  “Orange robed gurus” had been replaced by “white-collared academics” who speak of the benefits of “being in the moment.” It was, they contended, “a social phenomenon” most likely “rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.”

Mass application of mindfulness worried the British psychiatrists. While the psychiatrists stopped short of condemning the practice, they urged “caution” about “its widespread use as a therapeutic technique”  (i.e., McMindfulness)  and warned against the”assembly -line’ approach based on “a reductive understanding of the human mind.”

Much of this mindfulness obsession might turn out to be another passing phase and possibly a harmless one providing comfort and meaning to some.  What’s worrisome is the scientific evidence mounting of its potential to do harm if mass applied to larger populations, including students and teachers.

What’s driving the Third Path movement surfacing in Canadian schools?  Does “Relationship-Based Education” simply mean “get to know your students” or is it code for “Mindfulness” practice?  How much of the Third Path is inspired by Mindfulness and Self-regulation?  Are leading psychiatrists on the right track– has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? 

“All that glitters is not gold” is a famous proverb plucked from William Shakespeare‘s play The Merchant of Venice that may well apply to recent international appraisals of K-12 education in Canada. Such rosy assessments tend to put a shiny lustre on what is essentially a sound and ‘pretty good’ school system that has lost ground to competing nations over the past decade.

Five years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) produced a rather rosy Education Policy Outlook for Canada as part of a series of reports offering comparative analysis of education policies and reforms across the world’s developed countries. Canada’s overall performance, aggregated from widely varied provincial assessment data, looked good, in comparison with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Most significantly, the OECD assessors brushed aside concerns about “plateaued student achievement” on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and the decline in the proportion of top performing students.

Emerging concerns were most clearly expressed in Dr. Paul Cappon’s final 2010 report for the Canadian Council on Learning. Student scores on the 2009 PISA test had revealed that Canadian 15-year-olds demonstrated relatively strong sets of skills in reading, math and science, but they were already slipping relative to high performing Asian countries and in some cases in absolute terms. “What I’m hoping,” Cappon said at the outset of his final cross-Canada tour, “is that when people realize that Canada is slipping down the international learning curve we’re not going to be able to compete in the future unless we get our act together.”

OECD Education Policy Outlook assessments and Country reports are based upon templates that tend to favour diverse and well-funded school systems like that of Canada. The six identified policy levers in 2015 were: 1) equity and quality of education; 2) preparing students for the future; 3) school improvement; 4) evaluation and assessment; 5) governance; and 6) funding.  Such public policy forecasts, based upon conventional criteria and historic trends, also tend to demonstrate “path dependency” which limits the capacity to capture radical shifts in context or dynamic changes in educational direction.

Fifteen-year-old students in Canada, based upon triennial PISA tests from 2000 to 2018, continue to perform above the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science. Our most economically and socially disadvantaged students, in aggregate, do relatively better than those in competing countries, demonstrating more equity than in most other countries.  A considerably higher proportion of Canadian K-12 students proceed to post-secondary education in universities and colleges. That much has not changed across time.

Three significant changes can be identified from the accumulating OECD student assessment and survey data and they deserve far more critical scrutiny:

Downward Trend in Student Performance:  The performance trends for Canadian fifteen-year-olds are consistently downward from 2000 to 2018 in READING,  from 2003 to 2018 in MATHEMATICS, and from 2006 to 2018 in SCIENCE.  While the OECD average scores are also in decline as more countries are included in PISA, the descent is more pronounced among students from Canada. Students in Canada’s top performing provinces of Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec (Mathematics) tend to buoy-up the lagging results produced by students from New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Deteriorating Classroom Disciplinary Climate:

The 2015 Education Policy Outlook for Canada flagged one measure, based upon student survey responses, where Canada simply met the OECD standard – the index of classrooms conducive to learning (Figure 5, OECD Canada, 2015).  That largely undiagnosed problem has worsened over the past three years.  Canada ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the OECD’s 2018 index of disciplinary climate, released on December 4, 2019.  According to a global student survey conducted in the spring of 2018, one in five students, 15 years-of-age, report that learning time is lost to noise, distractions, and disorder, so much so that it detracts from learning in class. A relatively high proportion of Canadian students say the teacher is not listened to and it takes a long time for the class to settle down. In addition, students regularly skip school and report late to class.

High Incidence of Fear of Failure:

Personal anxieties may also run higher among Canadian students when they confront writing standardized tests and experience a fear of failing the test. In Canada, the OECD 2019 Education GPS report states, “15-year-old students have a strong fear of failure”ranking 6th among 77 national student groups participating in the survey.  Fear of failure runs highest among students in Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Macau, Japan, and Germany, but is less pronounced in high performing countries such as Korea. Estonia, and Finland.  Such fears are present to the same degree among students in the United Kingdom, but less so in the United States.  No analysis whatsoever is offered to explain why fears run so comparatively high among teens in Canada.

The initial report on the Canadian Results of the OECD PISA 2018 Study, released by the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) in early December 2019, are of little help in evaluating these rather striking trends.  Like previous reports in the CMEC series, the report puts a positive spin on the aggregate results by casting them within a broad, global context, lumping together countries with radically different commitments to education in terms of spending and resources. It is possible to ferret out anomalies and to conduct province-by-province comparisons, but only with time, effort, and attention to detail. That is sufficient to keep it either buried or accessible only to education assessment specialists.

Does the Canadian Education Policy Outlook ventured in 2015 stand up under close analysis. five years on?  What’s missing from the OECD and CMEC assessment reports for Canada over the past decade?  Should the Canadian public be concerned about the downward trend in the demonstration of core skills in reading, mathematics and science?  Is disciplinary climate now a real concern in Canadian classrooms? And why are Canadian students so afraid of failing in our schools when grade promotion and graduation rates are at record levels?

Canadian classrooms may well have an undiagnosed problem with students’ time-on-task. According to a global student survey conducted in the spring of 2018, one in five students, 15 years-of-age, report that learning time is lost to noise, distractions, and disorder, so much so that it detracts from learning in class. It’s also a problem that has worsened since the previous survey three years ago.

Canada ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s 2018 index of disciplinary climate, released on December 4, 2019.  The index is based on an international survey of 600,000 15-year-old students’ views about the state of student discipline in their classes. A relatively high proportion of Canadian students say the teacher is not listened to and it takes a long time for the class to settle down. In addition, students regularly skip school and report late to class.

While most mainstream media and education commentators focus on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 test student achievement rankings in reading, mathematics and science, critically important survey data on the lived experience of students tends to get overlooked. Most Canadian educators are so totally wedded to current positive progressive discipline principles that there’s a blind spot when it comes to connecting deteriorating class climate with the stalling of student achievement.

Noise and disruptions are relatively common in Canadian language of instruction classes, and well above the average among the 77 jurisdictions completing the survey.  This is significant because students who report being unable to work well because of such distractions in most or every class scored 25 points lower in reading on the 2018 PISA test.

For most countries, classroom discipline improved between 2009 and 2018, the OECD report said.  Comparing student behaviour in 2015 in science classes with 2018 behaviour in English classes, student discipline has deteriorated with more students reporting that the teacher has to wait a long time for students to settle down, that students cannot work well, and don’t start learning until long after the beginning of the lesson.

Students are best behaved in school systems focused more on providing orderly, purposeful teaching, such as Korea, Japan and China, and other authoritarian countries. Classroom unruliness is far worse than in Canada in Argentina, Brazil, France, Greece, Spain, the Philippines, Belgium and Australia.  Concerns run so high in Australia that it’s been publicly described as an “entrenched behaviour crisis.”

A total of 38.9 per cent of Canadian students reported there was noise or disorder in most or all of their classes, compared with 31.5 per cent across the OECD participating states. That’s far higher than in Korea (7.9 per cent), Japan (9.7 per cent), and top European performer, Estonia (23.6 per cent). It’s also more prevalent than in the United Kingdom ( 33.7 per cent) and the United States (28.2 per cent).

Student bullying among Canadian 15-year-olds is also reportedly higher than in the United States school system. One out of five students (19.2 per cent) report “being hit or pushed around by other students.” Only 2 per cent of Korean students report being bullied, and some school systems’ classrooms are downright dangerous places. In the Philippines, for example, three out of five students (60.2 per cent) claim to have been roughed-up during the course of a year.

Skipping school and arriving late to class are more common in Canada than in either the U.K. or the U.S. In the two weeks prior to the PISA test, some 23 per cent of Canadian students skipped between from 1 to 5 or more school days. One out of three skipped some classes and over half (52.3 per cent) arrived late for school from 1 to 5 or more times.

Speading ‘nasty rumours’ is an unpleasant aspect of student life. One out of four Canadian students (27.5 per cent) report being on the receiving end of such psycho-harassment by other students, similar to the situation in  U.S, schools.  It’s far more prevalent in both U.K. and Australia schools and relatively rare in Korea, where only 9.6 per cent report being the victim of personally damaging rumours.

Connecting changes in school disciplinary climate with students’ academic achievement challenges is long overdue in Canadian K-12 education. Struggling students in noisy and regularly disrupted classes, according to the OECD, do pay a price in terms of their scores in reading and presumably in other core subject areas.

School-wide Positive Behaviour Intervention Systems (SW-PBIS) have eclipsed other approaches to student behaviour management in Canada and in many of the countries where students report poor disciplinary climate.  It’s exemplified in schools with regular noise, distractions, and disorder where students skip school and regularly miss classes.

DisciplinePBISClassCode

Whether you favour SW-PBIS programs or not, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a breakdown in effective classroom management. Far more attention has to be paid to responding to “behavourial violations” (where positive praise does not work) with planned and systematic strategies, including “brief, concise” correctives,  ‘planned ignoring,’ and the appropriate use of explicit reprimands.

Why do we focus so much on PISA student achievement rankings and tend to ignore the contextual analysis explaining the contributing factors?  Should we pay more attention to the OECD PISA survey data on student experiences?  How big a factor is “disciplinary climate” in creating optimum conditions for student learning and achievement?  Is it time to look at alternatives to school-wide positive behaviour supports and associated programs? 

“DO NOT USE” signs plastered all over school drinking fountains have a way of getting the chilling message across. For the past thirty years, those signs have appeared, periodically, on fountains in thousands of Canadian K-12 schools. Most of us walk by, unaware – until recently — of a simmering public health crisis.

What was a largely dormant issue has come back with a vengeance.  The November 4, 2019 release of the findings of the massive year-long Canadian investigation, spearheaded by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, has raised new concerns over exposure to lead in home tap water and school/daycare drinking water supplies.

The “Tainted Water” series of news reports were alarming because many in education had assumed it was behind us. The benchmarks changed in March of 2019 when federal health authorities reduced the acceptable levels of lead from 10 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb. Out of 12,000 tests conducted since 2004, in 11 different Canadian cities, one-third – 33 per cent—exceed the new health. safety standard. The latest investigation, based upon some 260 water tests conducted in 32 cities and towns and validated in accredited labs showed that 39 per cent of samples, or two out of five, exceeded the 5 ppb guideline for healthy water.

The current health alarm is serious, but needs to be considered in proper North American context.  Three to four million American children were found to have toxic levels of lead in their blood back in the 1980s. Levels of contamination were far higher in those days. The U.S. EPA reported that thirty-three of the 47 states testing drinking water had levels exceeding the then acceptable standard of 20 ppb.  Back then, most people, including young children, were exposed to multiple environmental sources, including paint on old housing walls, drinking water, ambient air, dust, soil, and food, particularly canned goods.

The 1988 U.S. Lead Contamination Control Act imposed strict new regulations on American schools requiring them to clean up their act by testing drinking water, abandoning lead-lined water coolers, and remedying any contamination found in taps and water intake pipes. It faced stiff legal challenges and a great deal of non-compliance and was eventually struck down in 1996 by a federal appeals court.

The first real school drinking water scare did produce a ripple effect and reactive responses which reverberated in school districts, from province-to-province, across Canada. What survived was a 1991 EPA established standard that required periodic tests for lead and copper levels in public water systems virtually excluding schools and day cares drawing water from their own wells. While the limit was reduced to 15 ppb, it applied to municipal water feeds rather than internal sources of contamination. In the case of schools, most of the lead still originates in lead pipes, water-cooler linings, and in led metal fountains and taps.

Medical science has advanced significantly over the past three decades, but implementation of health regulations lags, especially when it comes to testing for lead contaminants in schools and daycares. Coast-to-coast, the Canadian investigators identified a patchwork of lead regulations, weak oversight, laxity in conducting tests, and the relative absence of regular testing of homes, schools or daycares drawing water from wells.

When Health Canada cut the acceptable level of lead levels in half, it sent provincial and school district authorities scrambling, particularly outside the major metropolitan centres,  The new regulation came with warnings that, even at concentrations as low as 5 ppb, high levels of exposure can damage the prefrontal cortex, cause prenatal growth abnormalities, and contribute to anti-social behaviour and child behavioural problems. It has also been identified as a risk factor for hypertension, chronic kidney disease and tremors in adults.

Thousands of Canadian children in schools and daycares are at risk of ingesting lead in drinking water and most were totally unaware of that until the release of the latest journalistic expose. Provincial authorities, with the possible exception of Ontario and British Columbia, are playing catch-up, compared to a number of American states more proactive in testing and public disclosure.

The EPA promotes its “3Ts” approach – Training, Testing and Taking Action, complete with home and school water quality testing kits.  Since August 2016, New York State has required all school districts and boards to “test all potable water outlets for lead contamination, to remediate contamination where found, and to notify parents of children and the public of the results.”

The 2016 public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, intimately connected with the toxicity of water did not seem to register up here in Canada. Periodic warnings were issued to no avail by provincial public servants, according to newly-released government documents obtained through formal freedom-of-information requests.

Cleaning-up school drinking water standards is back as a top education priority. Whether it will last in a system best by competing immediate demands for reduced class sizes, more resource supports, and improved working conditions remains to be seen. Deferred maintenance has a way of coming back to bite school systems.

*An earlier version of this commentary was published in The Chronicle Herald, November 16, 2019 

Why is lead still in school and daycare drinking water, thirty years after the initial revelations?  Was the 2019 lead in the water scare the result of Health Canada’s decision to dramatically reduce the acceptable standards? How effectively did school and day care authorities respond?  Without a nation-wide investigative report, how much would we have known about the extent of the problem? 

recent CBC News series featured heart-breaking stories of violence — physical, psychological and sexual — inflicted on students in today’s schools. All of this came hard on the heels of the horrendous stabbing death of 14-year-ol Devan Bracci-Selvey in front of Hamilton’s Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School.

Raising our consciousness about the dangers students face is much easier than grappling with why Canadian schools are falling short in addressing the chronic problem of violence, bullying, and sexual harassment in the first place. That challenge has confronted us for more than a decade since the release of Julian Falconer’s massive January 2008 report The Road to Health, which looked at tackling student violence in the Toronto District School Board.

School authorities from province to province, we learned from the CBC investigation, still collect incident reports on student violence in vastly different ways. The result is a crazy-quilt patchwork of data with far too many schools and regions that file no reports at all. Only two of the provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, require schools to share their school violence statistics with their education ministries. Even so, in the case of Ontario, that data was found to be incomplete and inaccurate.Given the paucity of reliable statistics, it’s next to impossible to analyze this disturbing social trend in our schools.

To get to the bottom of the problem, CBC’s Marketplace commissioned a nationwide survey of 4,000 young people, ages 14 to 21, in September of this year. The results were startling: Two out of five (41 per cent) of boys reported being physically assaulted in high school; one in four girls (26 per cent) experienced unwanted sexual contact at school; and one in four students first experienced sexual harassment or assault before Grade 7 in elementary school.

Five key factors can be identified, based upon the CBC investigation and credible research on violence in schools:

  • ‘Head-in-the-sand’ denial: Much of the school violence experienced by students is treated by officials as isolated incidents, or events requiring too much time-consuming investigation in order to assign blame or responsibility. In the absence of required reporting, it goes unacknowledged and, all too often, is swept under the rug.
  • Ineffective oversight: Even where reporting of student violence incidents is expected or required, it’s often not deemed a priority unless or until a publicized incident hits the media and arouses parental unrest. School-by-school reports may be filed, as in Ontario, but oversight is weak or non-existent and the absence of reports is not questioned, even in some cases when it involves incidents featured in local media reports.
  • Under-reporting: Many principals and administrators under-report the number of actual school violence incidents, as revealed when compared with student-reported data. In American states, where student violence reporting is more established, data generated from the victims is incorporated into the official statistics.
  • Fear of reputational risk: School administrators are often protective of a school’s reputation and reluctant to report higher counts, which might result in them being labelled a “dangerous school” if their numbers are high or rising from year to year.
  • Feeble public accountability: Educational oversight by elected school boards and district educational councils is woefully inadequate.

Illustrating that last point, Manitoba provincial school boards association president Alan Campbell says that maintaining “a safe learning environment” is the “No. 1 priority.” However, public disclosure of data is non-existent there, and levels of sexual harassment and hateful name-calling are higher than any other province in Canada. Why elected boards do not insist upon full public disclosure is hard to fathom, especially when it’s their responsibility to identify critical needs and allocate district resources.

Much can be learned from American school research, which includes critical analysis of how Ontario has collected violence statistics over the past eight years. UCLA Professor Ron Avi Astor, co-author of Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time, has published more than 200 academic studies on violent behaviour in schools. In the CBC News series, he confirmed that Canada has no real system at all for collecting data, exemplified by uneven provincial policies, lack of consistent definitions for offences, varying collection systems, and inaccurate or incomplete statistics.

StudentViolenceCBCGraphOntario deserves credit for requiring mandatory reporting, but the system does not stand up to close scrutiny. The most recent data documented 2,124 violent incidents in 2018-19, averaging about 10 incidents province-wide each day. That simply does not stack up, because 18 of Ontario’s 76 school boards have reported zero incidents for several years, eight show radical variations from year to year, and four boards are in non-compliance for having failed to file reports at all for some years.

While the CBC News report documented serious levels of violent incidents in the province when it surveyed students, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of Ontario schools reported having no incidents of violence during the previous year.

Negligence in reporting and underreporting simply compounds the problem. When the violence statistics go unreported or are full of zeros, it becomes guesswork when allocating resources — not just funds, but counsellors, psychologists, and social workers to rectify school problems with student behaviour. Transparency in identifying problems is, after all, the critical first step in developing more effective, evidence-based harm reduction policies and in implementing school-level programs that work in reducing the incidence of student violence.

Why does the stubborn problem of student violence persist in our schools?  How can such school challenges be addressed when the data on student violence is either unreported or concealed from parents and the public?  When we do identify the extent of the problem, how well are we responding with harm reduction programs?  

Re-posted commentary, originally published on CBC’s Opinion section on November 10, 2019. 

 

Measles outbreaks in the spring of 2019 in the American Pacific Northwest and British Columbia were part of a global revival of an infectious disease that had already affected thousands in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. In the wake of that outbreak, the BC Ministry of Health under Adrian Dix acted to require all parents to provide local public health units with their child’s immunization record before beginning school in September 2019. Twelve measles cases in Saint John, New Brunswick, in June 2019, prompted the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell to intervene to protect as many as 2,000 people exposed to the disease, ordering up 20,000 more doses of MMR vaccine, protection against measles, mumps and rubella.

Lagging childhood immunization rates are emerging as a major public health concern.  Periodic outbreaks of measles and mumps have alerted the public to the fact that childhood diseases, once virtually eradicated by vaccines, are reappearing in and around schools.

Vaccines remain one of the safest and most effective tools we have to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from infectious diseases. Those are not my words, but those of the Public Health Agency of Canada. The current reality is that we are not meeting our national immunization goals and too many children as well as adults remain unprotected and liable to experience illnesses from vaccine-preventable diseases that can cause serious health complications, some of which carry a risk of death.

Each year in April Health Canada raises the alarm during National Immunization Awareness Week and education programs are announced in an attempt to raise vaccination rates. Our Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, makes regular appeals, most recently in August of 2019, to encourage parents to keep their children’s immunization records up-to- date.

The current strategy is not working in Nova Scotia where only 71 per cent of 7- year-olds are immunized for measles and mumps, some 15 per cent lower than the national provincial average and ranking last among the provinces. In New Brunswick, where it’s considered a “crisis,” the measles and mumps coverage rate at age 7 is 92.3 per cent.

While provincial health and school authorities in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Ontario are tackling it head on, Alberta and Nova Scotia are still vacillating on how to improve its abysmal childhood immunization rates. While Health Minister Randy Delorey dithered, PC Leader Tim Houston introduced a private member’s bill to try to force the government’s hand.

Sparked by the spring 2019 measles scare in the Saint John region, New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy has championed legislation that would make vaccinations mandatory for children without medical exemptions in provincial schools and day cares.

Taking a proactive approach to combating the resurgence of childhood diseases is becoming common right across Canada. Three years ago, Ontario introduced stricter childhood vaccination regulations and in British Columbia legislation requires the reporting of immunization records. Ontario has far higher rates of reported childhood immunization at age 7 than Nova Scotia. Yet, since 2016, that province has required student vaccinations be up to date unless a parent or guardian can provide medical, religious or philosophical reasons why their child has not received a vaccine. Even when exemptions are granted, families are required to watch a 30-minute video on the importance of vaccines and then sign a document saying they viewed the presentation.

Public health authorities hold sway in Nova Scotia, unlike in New Brunswick, where a proactive Education Minister is leading the charge to meet childhood immunization targets so schools do not become sources of contagion.

Nova Scotia Health Minister Delorey may be deterred by fears of stirring-up the radical anti-vaxxers and setting back the cause. He should be taking his cue from New Brunswick’s courageous Education Minister. Confronting a posse of opponents, Cardy called out the group as conspiracy theorists who “influence, mislead and deceive” parents into thinking their children are at risk if they are vaccinated.

Prominent among the N.B. protesters were former Halifax chiropractor Dena Churchill who recently lost her licence to practice because of her anti-vax campaigning, and California pediatrician Dr. Bob Sears, a well-known anti-vax advocate funded by Vaccine Choice Canada.

Vaccine adverse reactions do happen, but, on balance, immunizing children prevents far worse harms caused by the unchecked spread of childhood infectious diseases. School attendance is compulsory and, in that context, so should immunization aimed at safeguarding children’s health.

Minister Cardy stood his ground defending his legislative changes aimed at achieving the goal of 95 per cent coverage. Growing anti-vaccination sentiment, he claimed, was being fed by social media, and threatened to discourage parents from vaccinating their children, reducing immunization rates below a critical threshold that allows a community to resist an outbreak.

Playing nice does not seem to be working at raising childhood immunization rates. Scare stories spread by anti-vaxxers should not go unchallenged. Claims that vaccines are harmful, in Cardy’s words, are “not supported in fact.” “If you believe in evidence-based decision-making, you have to look at the evidence and the evidence is incontrovertible.”

Childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, diphtheria, pertussis, and rubella can do great harm if left unchecked by regular vaccination. With childhood infectious diseases making a comeback, is now the time to be vacillating on child immunization? Does the school system have some responsibility to ensure that immunization rates are high enough to prevent mass outbreaks in the community?  Should it all fall on provincial and local health authorities? 

  • An earlier version of this research commentary appeared in The Chronicle Herald, October 31, 2019.