Wednesday, April 29, 2009

EPSB Travel Ban

Open Letter to all Affected by the Travel Ban,

First of all, let me state that I understand your anger and disappointment. Fund-raising efforts for trips are an enormous undertaking. With all the planning, anticipation and excitement about the trip builds and to have it suddenly ripped away must be very difficult for all involved.

The decision was made by our Superintendent, who has authority over all our schools and operations. The Board of Trustees, who has authority over policy, budget, direction-setting, monitoring, etc., was not involved in the decision. The Superintendent provided his rationale to the Board at last night’s public board meeting. He summarized the key points of the outbreak and emphasized the growing seriousness of the situation with the fact that the World Health Organization has, for the first time, declared a Phase 4 outbreak. A breakdown of the WHO pandemic phase descriptions is attached. Both Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools have decided to go ahead with a travel ban. One key concern is that staff or students might be stranded in a city or foreign country, should any bans on travel be instituted.

It may be argued that this is an over-reaction and that the ban should have only applied to Mexico. However, just today European countries have confirmed cases. It seems that we don’t really have any idea where the Swine Flu will show up next. With the first death confirmed outside Mexico this morning (a 23 month old child in the USA), the stakes are raised again. As you probably know, air travel is a very contagious environment due to the re-circulated air. (Personally, it seems every time I fly, I pick up a cold.)

I, like many of you, do not want to be fear-driven. I do not believe that all of our experiences can be or should be “100 % risk-free.” Driving cars also pose great risks, but we continue to drive every day and permit our children to go in cars. What are the reasonable limits of caution? For every person, this line will be different. As an organization with the responsibility for the care of almost 80,000 students, where should that line be drawn?

I can understand the desire of the Superintendent to take all possible precautions to protect our children and to have clear guidelines to direct school activities. I can understand the point-of-view of parents and students, who feel this decision has been made unilaterally and has serious impacts on them personally. This is a complex issue. And therefore, the Board will be debating this issue at our next Board meeting on May 12. Trustee Gibeault put forward the following motion last night:

Moved: That the travel restrictions announced by the Administration, in response to international developments regarding Swine flu. be amended to apply only to Mexico, pursuant to the advisory issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada, and that any further travel restrictions, for health reasons, be implemented on the advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada, or other recognized health authority.

I will bring forward the opinions of my constituents to this debate and I welcome your input on this important issue. I will also be weighing the legal implications and wrestling with the notion of reasonable risk and risk management. In the end, I will vote according to the sum of all the information before me. This will not be an easy decision; however, following my principles of transparency, I will post here on May 13, my vote and rationale as well as a summary of the discussion and final outcome.

For those of you for whom, this debate is “too little, too late” and may be frustrated that a change could not be made instantly, I can only say that the wheels of policy change (again, the Board’s purview) do not move quickly and that the Board needs time to duly consider the implications of amending the Superintendent’s decision. It is not something that this Board is prepared to do lightly or in haste.


Anonymous said...

The epsb travel ban is ill advised and ill informed - bordering on ridiculous. I believe we are the only jurisdiction in Canada to take this step. The World Health Organization issued a statement this morning saying that a ban on travel would have NO effect on the transmission of the swine flu - it is already our there. The death of the child in Texas is sad, but they were a family of migrant Mexican workers - do the math. You are not paying attention to medical officials who know what they are talking about. This is a flu, and with every flu, some people die. It is a seasonal, yet unfortunate event. Remember that Mexico city has more than 20,000,000 people. Once again do the math. My friend, Darrell, who lives in central Mexico, says that the government there has no idea what they are doing. Panic has no place in decisions about school trips. Please use some logic and sense.

Craig Sobat
Parent, Westminster School
780- 454-7756

Martin G said...

With his decision and the tacit approval of the board, the superintendent has deeply disppointed many children and has cost many families thousands of dollars.

The superintendent and the legal counsel claim to have thoroughly consulted various agencies, including Alberta Health and Wellness, Health Canada, WHO, etc., in order to justify this ban on travel. What did the consultation consist of? What recommendations did these agencies provide to EPSB? When did this consultation take place? The process that led to the decision is not transparent, and it needs to be.

When Alberta's chief medical officer says there is no reason for a travel ban, it seems the likely explanation for the consultataion is not just to protect children's safety (although that is no doubt a sincerely intended), but also to provide a some form of legal justification for asserting force majeur implicit in the EPSB policy, which reads, "The superintendent may at any time cancel or alter a field trip. If the cancellation or alteration is due to forces, conditions or threats outside the control of the district, no request for compensation by a parent will be entertained."

I would argue that, while there may be a perception of elevated threat and risk generated by the media hysteria, there is no currently no or very little real elavation of threat or risk for people travelling within Canada.

There are countless vectors for the transmission of a flu virus, and, contrary to popular belief, air travel is no more or less dangerous than being in an office building or school. According to Andre Picard in today's Globe and Mail (April 30), a study in the New England Journal of Medicine belies this common belief. On large commercial flights, the air is filtered and is recycled relatively frequently. However, if you are sitting close to someone infected with the flu, you are at increased risk. But a proximal vector for the flu can occur anywhere, not just on a plane.

Given this, there appears to be little or no elevated risk of contracting the flu for people traveling domestically on a plane. And, I might also argue that it might be relatively safer in Quebec: Florida or Cuba are more popular than Mexico for tourist destinations for Quebecers. Mexico is, however, a popular tourist destination for Albertans. There are no currently no cases of H1N1 in Quebec, as there are in Aberta.

In any event, there appears to be no basis for claiming an elevated threat or risk resulting from "forces, conditions or threats outside the control of the district" and thus no basis, in my opinion, for asserting force majeur.

The decision to send chilren on these trips during the current hysteria should have been left to the parents or made in consultation with the parents, rather than through some asserted "consultation" process that lacks transparency.

Having served on boards myself, I can certainly understand the board's reluctance to override the superintendent's decision. However, I believe it is necessary to override his decision in the case of the immediately upcoming trips. Furthermore, there is no need to wait until May 12 to consider this issue. The EPSB can call a special meeting according to its own policies(see, toward the bottom of the page.)

Failing this, I stronly encourage you and other board members to effect a policy change so that parents and children are protected in future from the arbitrary and ill-founded assertions of force majeur to cancel trips, which consequently disappoints children and leaves families financially liable for the expense. This would go a long way to building the trust that has been lost during this sad affair.

I will certainly think twice about sending my children on future school trips unless I have more assurance that trips cannot be cancelled without a more transparent process that involves all the affected parties and that also sees the school board share some of the finacial liability for the decsion.

Thank you for your time.