In loco parentis: what does duty of care mean for our schools during a climate crisis?
Feature Image Submitted by Dr. Ellen Field

In loco parentis: what does duty of care mean for our schools during a climate crisis?


Each of these acronyms would send a shiver down a graduating student’s spine. Oh the hours… and hours of stress. 

Climate change is our most pressing global crisis. And as we walk outside during this balmy winter, the catastrophic consequences of not understanding what is happening to our planet will have brutal consequences for everyone on it, if we don’t act. But despite the obvious reality staring us in the face everyday, education around climate change remains bewilderingly incongruent with what is at stake. While the Ministry of Education continues to push standardized testing to measure knowledge of core subjects, the science of what’s happening all around us remains absurdly absent from the classroom.

According to a nationwide survey undertaken by Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) and Leger, the vast majority of young Canadians believe we are experiencing a climate emergency and that climate change education should be a top priority. Despite understanding the severity of the problem at hand, the details are lacking. Only about half of the survey respondents knew that greenhouse gasses are the cause of climate change. Few were aware that global average temperature had already passed one degree above pre industrial levels.

Dr. Ellen Field, an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Lakehead University told The Pointer that, anecdotally, young people generally report that they didn’t learn about climate change as an interplay going through the Ontario public education system. 

“It's often in the areas of specialization and university where they really start to develop more depth of understanding and skill development,” she explained. “And I think there is a lot more that we could be doing.”

The current Ontario curriculum requires a climate change unit in grade 10 science, as well as integrated into the grade 8 and grade 9 geography curriculums. 

But Field said that as climate change progresses, she and other educational professionals are pushing an interdisciplinary approach to climate change education. One that could see students incorporating climate change learning in social sciences in grade 4, health class in grade 7 and civics class in grade 10. Field is one of six authors on a UNESCO report set to release late spring/early summer providing a draft curriculum framework for climate change education, outlining topics and discussions at age appropriate levels for climate change learning. 

“An interdisciplinary approach is necessary in order to develop the capacity and ways of thinking outside of the sciences, because every sector will be implicated by climate change,” she said. “Even if we were to drastically decarbonize and bend the curve, we still will have climate altered futures and so we need to be preparing for those realities.”

An important component of this interdisciplinary approach is also integrating Indigenous ecological knowledge and ways of knowing that can expand horizons and contribute meaningful lessons to a modern day approach.

“If we listen to youth and climate justice activists, a lot of their calls are around transformative change and recognizing that modern and colonial systems are what have led to this crisis; that this is it this is actually a very deep seated, capitalist and colonial issue,” Field said. “And so if we want to think beyond those paradigms, we also need to engage especially in social sciences and in holistic ways of thinking and learn from Indigenous knowledge keepers and just epistemological approaches that are different from the Western scientific approach.”

This interdisciplinary approach is increasingly represented in global arts culture as musicians, actors and artists grapple with how to express their feelings and experiences with climate change through their art. 

An example is Billie Eilish. The 22-year old American singer songwriter has used her platform as a prominent musician to increase awareness around animals and the environment. The Gen Z has made it her duty to limit the environmental impact of her music which includes not flying private, prioritizing plant-based foods and renewable energy production at her concert venues and founding the annual climate action event “Overheated” which brings together youth, musicians, artists and designers from around London to participate in panel discussions on tackling the climate crisis.

“Having students engage in subject areas that have traditionally not engaged with climate change is important for developing different ways of thinking modalities and creative approaches to the climate crisis,” Field said.

In order for students to gain knowledge about the climate crisis, they need to have learning opportunities that can drill down on topics and areas of concern. But the study from LSF found that only one-third of the educators surveyed felt they have the knowledge and skills to teach about climate change. While a growing majority of educators would like to include climate change education in their classrooms, 64 percent say they require professional development to learn how to teach about the complex subject effectively.

Field is looking to do just that. 


Dr. Ellen Field, an assistant professor in the department of education at Lakehead University, is spearheading an effort to increase climate change education in teacher training programs across the country.

(Photo submitted by Dr. Ellen Field)


Working in collaboration with Dr. Hilary Inwood, a lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Field is spearheading a program supporting and accelerating the integration of climate change education into teacher training programs across the province.

“Hilary and I essentially looked at climate change education from our vantage point, and thought about what we could do in this strategic way to accelerate or amplify our field,” she said. “The project is very applied. It's not a research intensive project. It's really to improve practice or policy.”

The two researchers were provided with $449,000 in funding from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to undertake the two year program that will provide resources and education to those who are studying to become professional educators, as well as those already employed within the education system. 

The researchers have already spearheaded a national roundtable which brought together 60 faculty members (including doctoral students) from 24 education programs across Canada to discuss the needs of educators in terms of climate change education and how that can be implemented into pedagogy and practice, as well as a webinar series for educators throughout K-12. These are complemented by two e-courses, one tailored to pre-teachers and one tailored to existing teachers, for those working in K-8, to learn course appropriate climate change material and methods of teaching. The first cohort of the course will begin in the third week of January.

“There are 200 teachers, pre-service and in-service teachers, that can go through,” Field said. “It's the first e-course that is being offered nationally and that is free. And ideally, we don't have to run this for years and years and years. The idea is to fill the need right now because not all faculties of education have a specific course in environmental sustainability education, let alone a climate change education course.”

Field’s team also put out a call prior to the December break for accelerated funding for school boards to implement their own climate change education training.

Currently the provinces of Nova Scotia and British Columbia have policy directives explaining the ways in which school boards support climate change education. In Ontario, the approach is much more piecemeal.

“There are provinces that are leading and I would say it's not a question of if it's a question of when. At COP 28 there was a huge focus on the importance of climate change education, and we've seen that in the last assessment at the IPCC … we just haven't seen it translated into educational policy. And I think in the next year or two, we will see continued momentum,” Field said. “It's a question of time.”

In October, LSF and other groups advocated for Peel District School Board (PDSB) to declare a climate emergency. A notice of motion was on a governance committee agenda late last year, but since, no declarative action has been taken.

“School boards can earmark funding for professional development for climate change education, school boards have a lot of autonomy as to how their professional development funding is allocated towards what areas. So that comes down to the leadership comes down to the leadership of the school board,” Field explained.


Across Ontario, conservation authorities have taken on the role of promoting education on environmental topics like sustainability and climate change.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


For the past 15 years, PDSB has participated in the EcoSchools Canada program in partnership with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. The EcoSchools Canada program offers certification for elementary and high schools to focus on climate change education, focussing on particular aspects of sustainability including wetlands, the use of microplastics and urban-nature relationships. The program is supported by conservation authorities who provide training and oversight for field trips and outdoor learning.

According to the EcoSchools Canada website, there are 1,620 certified schools across the country with 1,407 located in Ontario — just under a third of all schools in Ontario are EcoSchools certified. But just because a school is certified, does not guarantee that all teachers are equipped with the prior knowledge and skill to teach climate change aspects and approach the crisis from the interdisciplinary approach.

Field stressed however, that schools serve as a representation of democratic values and, as a place where young Canadians spend the majority of their waking hours, school policies and teacher interaction can have immense impact on student values and interests. In this way, schools and educators are in a unique position to combat climate misinformation. 

“School boards, increasingly, right now are facing lots of moments of escalating misinformation, not just on climate, but on other issues as well. And school boards have become places that actually increasingly have stood up for socially progressive democratic values,” she said. “And so by school boards leading in this way, I think they hold that space in a world where there are vested interests and [companies are] delaying climate action.”

She used the example of COP 28 to exemplify how strong these dissenting opinions can be. The 28th Council of Parties, an annual gathering of governments striving to enact strong environmental policy and keep the world in line with the 1.5 degree temperature increase target agreed upon in Paris in 2015, had an unprecedented number of fossil fuel lobbyists. The conference, which was held in late November/early December, brought 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists to the table, compared to 636 the year prior, according to the coalition Kick Big Polluters Out. In comparison, there were more fossil fuel lobbyists present at the convention than any country’s total number of delegates, save Brazil and host country UAE. 

“There are vested interests in terms of delaying climate action, but also not presenting accurate information. And so it is a challenging space but I think school boards have been strong supporters,” she said. “They can't have their heads in the sand on this. Because the stakes are too high.”


While climate activism is critical, education alongside it would go a long way toward pushing scientific solutions and government action.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


Combatting climate misinformation in schools also brings into question the duty of care. Under Canadian education law, schools operate in loco parentis, meaning that educators have a duty to act in supervisional responsibility in lieu of the parent to take care of the physical and mental well being of their students. 

“For me, I sometimes wonder, what does duty of care mean for schools in this moment of climate crisis, what role do schools need to play in terms of duty of care for young people?” Field questioned. “Where do schools sit on how they will protect and act to safeguard young people's futures?”

With the most pressing and destructive global crisis right on our heels, are teachers responsible for molding sustainably minded global citizens?

The question is a tough one to answer.

Youth organizations like Friday’s for Future Canada, Future Majority and Peel’s Community Climate Council have reported less involvement by Canadian youth in issues of environmental importance, especially outwards activism like climate strikes.

“Were dwindling participation. Nothing has really compared to that very first strike,” Miranda Baksh, president of Peel’s Community Climate Council, previously told The Pointer. “We have a lot of assumptions with it being like the pandemic that definitely put a wedge in things. But also, I think people just have a lot of apathy right now in terms of political engagement, or just seeing the country on fire.”

Given the surmounting state of the present day world, where costs of living are soaring and prevalence of mental health is increasing (which can include climate change anxiety), youth are dealing with an unprecedented number of stressors that can detract from their climate efforts. The education system can fill this gap.

Field and her colleague Dr. Paul Berger analyze self-reported data from students in their education programs, which has led to the finding that talking about climate change in the classroom, encourages these conversations to continue outside the classroom as well.

“The reflections will say things like, ‘I used to avoid having conversations about this because I didn't know how to have a conversation about it through the course I now talk to my friends about it. I talked to my family’,” Field said. “So that transference of confidence and exploration of the issue allows them to be teachers who feel confident to be able to have those conversations.”



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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