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Preparing for school trips with Back Roads Bill

This week Bill looks at school trip preparedness and how we should get better prepared for the back roads

About this time of the year the field trip forms come home for signing, for that end-of-the-year school excursion. But we know students leave the schoolyard for a variety of reasons on an ongoing basis.

There remain the societal questions of: “Is my child safe?” and “Where is the school trip plan so I know all the details?” At the same time do you create and leave a trip plan with anyone before you go travelling near or afar? For consent, it is form-based and some have become digitized.

They used to be called “field trips” but the vernacular is changing to “school trips,” all the opportunities students experience when elementary and secondary school pupils leave the classroom for a sporting or cultural event, day, overnight or international trip or a walk to the nearest green space. School trip preparedness is being looked at from different perspectives. There is training, and it is being implemented.

Worth It

James Raffan is the author of Deep Waters – Courage, Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy on June 13, of 1978. Eleven boys and one leader died from hypothermia.

This tragedy, which was first deemed to be an accident, was actually, as Raffan explains, “a tale of a school’s survival philosophy gone terribly wrong, unsafe canoes and equipment, and a total lack of emergency preparedness training." They were ill-prepared and did not inform the parents.

It is a book that also explores the nature of risk-taking and the resilience of the human spirit.

"We have learned that there is no room in any curriculum for educational pursuits that results in injury or death," Raffan said. "But we have also learned that, as heartbreaking and tragic as these incidents are, we must not throw out the demonstrated and significant outcomes of adventure education with the black waters of bad teaching practice, particularly when such practice is highlighted and condemned by the courts.

"The future of outdoor education must continue championing the absolute best standards of training and practice for practitioners, but it also must include sustained advocacy for the value of risk as a driver of all effective education."

Tony Cox is the CEO of Leaders of the Day, a business specializing in “reconnecting people with nature themselves and each other.”

“As an outdoor professional, I can’t say enough how critical it is for those leading excursions in the backcountry to be deeply and thoroughly prepared," Cox said. "Trip preparation means doing your homework and truly understanding the environment that you will be travelling in. It means acquiring critical skills, experience and knowledge and knowing how and when to implement each."

He said preparedness is about being able to see and assess the inherent risks present in more remote contexts and then being able to plan for and mitigate the most serious of them.

“Truly, it is a process that begins well before your departure and continues until everyone is safe at home in their beds. It is a state of thoughtful vigilance and the highest responsibility when safeguarding the well-being of other people’s children.”

Here is a complementary perspective. As a professor at Lakehead University, Tom Puk is a Professor in the Undergraduate Studies Program in Education and Graduate Studies and Research in Education since 1992.

He wonders why teachers do not fill out benefit forms instead of risk forms “as there are so many benefits to being with nature or away from the regular school environment.”

He takes his B.Ed candidates outside for every class.

He believes school trip preparedness forms are important as an informative mechanism for parents, especially from an experiential perspective. He thinks school trips are marginalized when compared to inside the classroom.

“What we don’t know we tend to fear,” he said. “Many administrators suffer from eco phobia and are reticent to have their teachers take students away from school. They can be uniformed and inexperienced when it comes to taking students outside.

"The forms do not guarantee safety, it is the experience from a school trip,” which he terms as a “Nature-embedded embodied experience.”

Dr. Puk said we tend to remember the media-hyped tragedies like the Temiskaming canoe tragedy, the 2000 ferry boat capsizing on Georgian Bay where two grade seven students drowned in and the recent Jeremiah Perry drowning in Algonquin Park in 2017.

“There are countless experiences led by teachers every day," he believes school trip preparedness plans will help with creating a more positive look at taking students outside of the classroom.

Bob Henderson has taught outdoor education at McMaster University for 29 years in both the Kinesiology Department and the Arts & Science – Environmental Inquiry.

Professor Henderson says, “Don’t stay in the risk potential mode. I worry that is what is happening,” is his advice to teachers. “When planning, return to what is familiar (destination) this will increase safety protocols and student behaviour (reactions).”

He says it is important to survey or imagine the hazards, but school trip preparedness can focus on the derived benefits, often overlooked.

New training

Each school board is responsible for developing its own safety policies. One school board has taken the initiative to maximize the benefits of these experiences by having their educators create comprehensive school trip preparedness 'infomercials' for parents, administrators and third-party providers.

The Near North School Board (North Bay-Mattawa-Burks Falls-Parry Sound) has administrative guidelines and examples of a school trip preparedness plan (Section 17). The Board requests teachers submit a school trip preparedness plan.

There are good reasons to do so. Superintendent of Education, Gay Smylie stated, "The school trip preparedness document provides parents with detailed information that is presented in a visual, easy-to-understand manner, allowing them to make informed decisions about their child's participation in any activity that occurs away from the school."

Principal of Safe Schools, Emily Samuel said, "As part of the school trip preparedness process, emergency services in the area are notified of certain types of excursions, such as outdoor education canoe trips, thereby allowing for quick response time in the event of an emergency. This kind of advance planning and partnering provides our students with incredible experiential learning opportunities while mitigating risks."

Training has been initiated through a program that complements existing forms. It is through a professional development certification created by Nipissing University.

Extended Learning, a section of Nipissing University Ancillary Services, was established at Nipissing University in North Bay in 2022 to develop programming for learners interested in upskilling, reskilling or adding to their professional skills. Mylae Robson is the manager of extended learning at the university and says it's now offering a badge for trip preparedness training.

Digital badges are earned for successfully completing specific learning opportunities such as micro-credentials and professional workshops. School trip preparedness training is for teachers, and anyone leading trips like Scout and Girl Guides and the public in general who travel and third-party vendors who work with schools.

“We have the expertise and appropriate connections to offer training, workshops and micro-credentials with seasoned professionals,” Costello said.

"Trip preparedness provides educators, youth program developers and anyone who plans excursions the opportunity to learn the dos and don'ts in an online learning platform, reviewing and practicing best practices at their own pace.

"This training doesn't require a lot of time and is supported by an experienced professional with years of experience and examples. Learners' self-paced learning is still supported by the developer and successful completion will require submission of a trip plan, in which, the learner will receive professional feedback.

“The program emphasizes the need by teachers to experience the excursion before they take students there or if they work with a third party provider (outfitter, environmental ed. centre.) prior to the undertaking.”

A map link and static scaled maps help with where students are according to a schedule. Activities undertaken underline the importance of curriculum links – why they are going there. Photos of mustering areas, arrival and departure areas along with safety protocols and potential hazards are identified. The STP plan is an informative visual experience. It also promotes the relevant standards/guidelines developed by OPHEA (Ontario Physical and Health Education Association) Requirements of the Educators.

Long overdue

ALIVE Outdoors is a third-party provider, a leading and respected educational organization with more than twenty years of history developing and facilitating meaningful and engaging outdoor programs for schools that are focused on an authentic connection to the natural environment.

Its programs guide participants through experiences with challenges, accomplishments, unexpected outcomes and moments of imperfection. 

Ryan Howard, PhD, is the Director of Research, Risk, and Innovation.

“School trip preparedness training is a welcome addition to the available training for all teaching and administrative staff working in schools.

"Experiential education activity opportunities have exploded on the heels of the pandemic and the education industry needs resources for teachers and administrators to learn about how to best prepare for trips and manage the risks associated with taking students off-site.

"Schools and teachers are very capable of managing risk and being prepared for in-school learning opportunities, but once the venue changes the common school practices to manage risk no longer hold much weight.

“We need to be keenly aware that there are many parties involved in offering offsite excursions or trips for students, including third-party providers, transportation providers, and additional insurance to name just a few.

"Understanding the complexity of working with various partners, to identify and establish an industry-weighted offsite risk management plan needs due attention by any organizer taking students offsite. This training is long-overdue for schools and teachers and is a welcome step to helping keep kids safe and empowering staff to fulfill their duty of care,” Howard said.


Chris Dube is an exemplary teacher at Lake Superior High School in Terrace Bay. A few years back he was one of the initial group of teachers taking the pilot school trip preparedness training.

“The days of a permission form saying 'we are bringing your child to ___________. Please sign this permission form' are long over," Dube said.

“Learning from prior incidents/accidents that have occurred throughout the world, outdoor education teachers, Boards, Ministry of Education, and OPHEA all have collaborated to develop standards of practice, best practices, and competencies for field trips to occur.

"Teachers need to demonstrate a high level of competency with regards to planning, preparation, safety, and their own skill set (or skill set of the guide/group leader).”

He utilizes the school trip preparedness format.

“It is a communication piece that I use with my students, parents, and administration to communicate the following information pieces concerning my school trips: trip overview: where, when, who, what, why.”

We take first-aid courses for a variety of reasons.

In Ontario there is an online course on concussion protocol based on Rowan’s Law - it is a Code of Conduct that sets out rules to learn how to prevent, identify and manage concussions.

There are no mandatory guidelines for school trips but school boards have policies with supportive guidelines through administrative forms and a school trip preparedness plan complements the forms.

Bernie Mosley-Williams is a teacher with the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board and has been taking students outside the classroom for more than thirty years.

“Professional development like the school trip preparedness program is needed because teachers overestimate the risk and underestimate the value of taking kids outside -- so they don't," Mosley-Williams said. "The school trip preparedness plan is a visual and informative plan to help with informing parents and administration.”

Why should 9-1-1 be surprised? Communication matters, for police, fire and paramedics so it would be a courtesy for educators to send them a trip plan link a number of days before something happens. Basically, emergency services want to know where you are and who is there. An accessible repository of school trip preparedness plans would be a valuable resource for teachers taking the diverse nature of school trips.

Safety matters, it is all about student success and the benefits of out-of-school opportunities. Look for the school trip preparedness presentation. You can also file a trip plan before you go on the back roads, as we should.

At a minimum leave an information note on the dash of your car – time, date, who and destinations; it can make a difference for everyone on and off the back roads (see the photos as an example of what you can do).

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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