By Lyonel Doherty

An updated policy affecting field trips in Rocky Mountain School District No. 6 is worrying some parents who fear that outdoor education for children may be compromised. But senior board officials say the intent is to mitigate the risks and to ensure the safety of all students (and teachers).

The board discussed the issue last week at its regular meeting where the policy (under third reading) outlines the rules and regulations surrounding field trips, including supervisor-to-student ratios which are a bone of contention for some parents and guardians.

Field trips are divided into three categories: outdoor classroom activities (short walking trips), lower-care (farm visits, ice skating), and higher-care excursions (skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, etc.) that require special safety considerations.

In the 2022-2023 school year, there were nearly 900 lower-care and higher-care field trips (not including outdoor classroom activities) taken in the district. Of the 883 field trips, 125 were higher care (14 per cent) and 758 were lower care (86 per cent). These trips included visiting lakes, parks, and museums, as well as participating in Indigenous learning opportunities.

It is noted that downhill skiing is only offered to students beginning in Grade 4.

The supervisor-to-student ratio for lower-care trips are 1:6 for kindergarten to Grade 3, 1:10 for Grade 4 to 7, and 1:15 for Grade 8 to 12. The ratios for higher-care trips are 1:4 (K-3), 1:6 (Grade 4-7), and 1:8 (Grade 8-12).

Katrina Chapman, secretary of the Eileen Madson Primary Parent Advisory Council (EMP PAC), told the Pioneer that parents don’t recall being consulted about the policy with a clear understanding of the ramifications. She also pointed out that the committee received no response from the board to a succinct letter it sent earlier this year.

Chapman said the EMP PAC membership feels that a downhill skiing trip at the Grade 2 and 3 level could be appropriately managed to score an acceptable rating. “We also believe that the mental and physical health of this age group would benefit from participating in this popular outdoor activity,” she said, adding the PAC is concerned that many activities, particularly outdoor activities, will soon be out of reach to many children and families, for whom some of these activities are cost prohibitive to access. 

Chapman said they had multiple quality discussions with the school principal, noting that it is at the district level that parents do not feel adequately represented. 

“The complete lack of response from the district even acknowledging that they received our letter only resulted in parents feeling that our voices and relevant concerns do not matter to the current administration.”

 She also noted that parents understand they have a role to play in risk mitigation to support continuing the annual ski trip for Grade 2 and 3 students. In the end, however, a decision was made to cancel the trip, citing staff comfort levels and other assessed factors. 

Chapman said that the PAC respects the reasons behind this decision, noting that current teachers don’t want to take on that kind of risk and responsibility. She also pointed out that the historical nature of these ski trips, having been successful and safely executed in the past, demonstrate they are feasible, safe, and beneficial to the children.

The letter that the PAC sent to the board alluded to Windermere Elementary School planning a downhill skiing trip, whereas Edgewater Elementary School was denied, causing the perception of bias and whether the policy is subjective.

The PAC went on to say: “If we are not supporting our children to explore the opportunities that come with rural life, many which are generally seen as more risky than those in urban centres, our children are really at a disadvantage and are not provided with the education and skills necessary for life in the Columbia Valley.”

The letter clearly supports ski trips for Grades 2 and 3 due to the benefits they offer to physical and emotional development. The PAC advocates ski trips where students are given lessons facilitated by trained instructors, adding that there would be plenty of parent volunteers to support the ratios.               

(Getty images)

District Superintendent of Schools Karen Shipka told the Pioneer that the policy is not intended to prevent field trips but to ensure that those planning them are aware of the potential risks. She noted the ratio recommendations (based on research), are flexible and there are options to mitigate the risks to students. These may include increasing supervision, changing a location or including specialized training.   

The superintendent pointed out that multiple outdoor learning experiences take place in the district every week in order to take advantage of the Columbia Valley’s beautiful locations.

But parent Mike Caswell from Invermere sees the updated policy as severely limiting the ability for students to take part in field trips under the “guise” of managing risk. He is specifically concerned about the board singling out skiing as a banned activity for students in K-3. 

“The policy makes it harder to get classes outdoors,” he says, noting that complex forms and excessive supervision ratios contribute to a “crippling parasitic drag on the classroom.”

Caswell points out that outdoor education improves kids’ mental health, academic performance and behaviour management.

In a feedback report to the board, another individual raised a concern about the policy, saying it appears to be “over the top.” They wrote that risk is necessary for social development and these field trips have been conducted for years with little to no issues. “Wrapping kids in bubble wrap is not giving the next generation a leg up.”

School board chair Amber Byklum told the Pioneer they acknowledge the concerns, clarifying the ratios do not affect trips that are an extension of the classroom, such as walks to the community garden or the museum.

“Where we need extra care and caution is for the low risk and higher-care field trips that can pose some bigger safety issues if not planned correctly,” Byklum said, adding that having sufficient supervisor ratios is a major factor in mitigating issues for teachers. 

“The ratios are not far from what teachers and principals would have asked for in the past to ensure their students were well looked after for the higher-risk type field trips.” 

The chair continued by saying the district and the field trip committee will always work with teachers and principals to ensure that field trips take place. 

Byklum said she can’t speak to field trips that are only approved by principals, but for the ones that are approved by the board’s field trip committee, “no, we have not declined any for lack of supervision.”

The chair stressed that student safety is always the top priority, but the board also has a responsibility to teachers to provide them with a safe and healthy work environment. “And a responsibility to parents so they know that their children are in a safe learning environment even when outside the walls of the schools.”

When asked about the perception that safety and liability have gone too far in education, Byklum said she has three children who have attended various schools in the district.

“At all times it was my expectation that the district had the safety of my child as their top priority and took all the steps to ensure they were safe because I didn’t have eyes and hands on them as they were skiing down a ski slope.”

She said if a concerned parent was to look at the safety plans the board has in place they would feel extremely satisfied that their child would be safe on their first day of rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, kayaking, survival camping or travelling abroad. 

(Getty Images)