Off school property? Safety on field trips

We all want our kids to be safe on field trips. But is prudent becoming paranoid?

Last December, my eight-year-old son brought home a consent form for an upcoming field trip. The note warned parents that the planned activity had inherent risk of injury “such as, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, slips, falls, broken bones, etc.” What was this shockingly dangerous activity? Bungee jumping? Two-man luge? Nope, it was a half-kilometre walk to the local arena.

I suppose walking down the street does carry the risks listed in this memo — not to mention lightning strikes, falling meteorites and the off chance of contracting avian influenza — but I put aside these fears and signed the form.

Perhaps I shouldn’t make light of the fears faced by the school officials who pay lawyers to draw up notices like this one. In recent years, a small number of school trips have ended in tragedy, such as the 2003 avalanche that killed seven Alberta students in the Rockies. Other children have drowned on school-run trips to the swimming pool, and many more have been injured in accidents, so there’s no question that outings do carry some risk. The constant challenge, then, is to weigh those risks against the educational value of the field trip.
Fighting fear
Unfortunately, schools and parents aren’t always good at assessing risk. “People come at the issue from fear,” says Glenda Hanna, creator and project manager of YouthSafe Outdoors, an Edmonton-based initiative that consults school boards on safety and risk management. “They tend to be swayed by media hype about a few incidents, and they overlook the incredible benefits of field trips. We tend to have this expectation that no child should be injured in a school function, yet children get hurt at home every day. To expect a zero rate of incidents on field trips is no more realistic than to expect a zero rate at home.”

Hanna has noticed, for example, that less than 10 percent of kids at Edmonton’s busiest outdoor skating rink wear protective headgear. “The community standard is clearly no helmet. Yet if a school is organizing that activity, they often require a CSA-approved helmet. But how many grade-one parents are going to spend $100 on a CSA-approved hockey helmet for their little girl to go on two half-hour skating trips with her class?” Hanna’s research shows that head injuries from winter activities other than hockey virtually always involve kids who aren’t wearing a helmet. It’s more reasonable, she says, just to “put a lid on the kid,” even if it’s a bike or skateboarding helmet. In other words, any helmet is better than no helmet at all. “We slap down these arbitrary things in the guise of keeping children safe, and what happens? The kids don’t get the experiences because the standards are not reasonable.”

There seems little doubt that fear — whether it’s genuine concern about injury, or simply the school boards’ fear of litigation — has led to an overall decline in the number of field trips. At one Alberta board, Hanna says, a lawyer created an onerous amount of paperwork that must be approved for every trip.

They admitted their intent was to make it as difficult as possible for teachers to organize and run field trips so they won’t do them.”

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Krista Tulloch, who’s been a special ed teacher in Vancouver for 10 years, is a firm believer in getting out of the classroom — so much so that she and three other volunteers have put together bcfieldtrips.ca (an online guide) and an annual field trip fair to connect teachers with community-based educators, including museum and art gallery representatives. She says one of the keys to creating a safe field trip is the notice that’s sent home, though she says it’s common for parents not to read it carefully or to miss important information. “You end up with kids who come on trips without appropriate clothing — they don’t have a change of dry socks if they’re going on a nature hike, or they show up for snowshoeing without waterproof pants.”

A field trip notice should also have enough information to allow parents to assess any risk that might be specific to their child and provide the information to the school, Hanna says. For example, if you’re worried that your child wanders in large crowds, you may want to set up one-on-one supervision. “It is important that parents have the ability to provide informed consent that is based on the real risks.”

Carry a card
While serious injury on a school field trip is rare, there is a far more common scenario parents worry about: their child getting separated from the group. To prepare for situations like this, Tulloch’s class has a ready-to-go backpack that contains not only a first-aid kit, parent contact numbers and the students’ medical information, but also a set of laminated emergency cards. Before any trip, the kids each get a card, which includes the school address and phone number and Tulloch’s cellphone number. She learned how important the cards were when she took a class of grade-fours to a festival and one boy wandered off into a crowd of thousands (incidentally, he was under the supervision of his own mother). Someone saw the boy and could tell from his face that he was lost and frightened. “He was so overwhelmed that all he was able to do was pull out the card.”
The parents’ role
Parent volunteers play a crucial role in field trip safety, yet every teacher has horror stories about chaperones who were more hindrance than help. The most common complaints: parents who concentrate only on their child and ignore the others under their care, those who stand off to the side chatting with each other or on their cellphones, and those who bring along younger siblings. Not only are these distracted parents unable to properly supervise kids, they send out a negative message, Tulloch says. “Remember, you’re there to model being an excited learner.”

When it comes to screening the parent volunteers, there’s little consistency among boards. In Tulloch’s class, all parents are generally welcome, though after a while a teacher learns to invite volunteers she thinks will be most helpful — some may be better suited to the art gallery than a nature hike. Other school boards do things more formally. “Because of media-driven fear, boards often do complete police screening for everyone who comes anywhere near the students,” says Hanna, “even when they’re all travelling together, walking around the museum in a group, and travelling together back to the school. To me, a police screening in that situation is overkill.” She suggests that police checks are generally necessary only before an overnight trip, where adults may have one-on-one access to students.

What ratio of adults to students is necessary to make a trip safe? Hanna and Tulloch agree the number depends entirely on the specific circumstances, and even official guidelines are not always helpful. For example, Tulloch’s district suggests a one to 10 ratio for intermediate-grade field trips. But with an activity like, say, snowshoeing, Tulloch says her experience on a given trail may tell her that’s not enough. “Even with guides that I personally know, that may not be comfortable for me. I may need more adults.” Hanna agrees that circumstances are the best guide to determining an adequate ratio. “If you’re just teaching junior high students to cross-country ski on the football field outside the school, even a one to 20 ratio isn’t necessary — there’s no safety issue.”

Street smarts
Tulloch is a firm believer that the best way to give kids the tools they need to be safe outside school is to allow them to practise, and field trips are the ideal environment to do that. “My students all know that when you’re on the sidewalk and someone with a stroller or walker comes along, you drop back into single file. They know when we take public transit, we go to the back of the bus and we stand up so we’re not in anyone’s way. They know when they step off the bus, the first person to hit the ground counts himself ‘one’ and they all count themselves before I get off the bus.

“Students don’t live in schools, so they really need to get as much experience as they can in their community. And I feel that the more experience kids get, the easier and the safer it is for them to be out.”

Field Trip Tips
Teachers aren’t the only ones who need to prepare for a field trip. Here’s how parents can help make trips safe and productive, according to YouthSafe Outdoors, an Edmonton-based organization that consults schools on risk management and safety.

• Read the notice and actively seek out any other information you need to understand the nature and purpose of the trip. Return the signed notice promptly.
• If you have any questions or concerns about a trip — just ask. If, after speaking with the appropriate person, you still don’t feel comfortable, prevent your child from going on the trip.
• Provide the school with accurate medical information about your child so staff can deal with an emergency.
• Ensure that your child arrives on time for the trip with appropriate clothing or other equipment.
• Make sure you use good safety practices on family outings, such as wearing a helmet when biking and using a personal flotation device when boating.
• Help out. Field trips depend on good parent volunteers so, whenever possible, offer to attend. If you can’t make it, let the other parent volunteers know how much you appreciate their help.