Chalkboards going the way of the dinosaur

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on February 9, 2009
Gabe Caves smacks two chalkboard erasers together, creating a cloud of dust in his Grade 6 classroom at Immaculate Conception school in Colliers. Chalk dust will soon be a thing of the past, as schools in the province make the transition to white boards which use erasable markers and interactive Smartboards that are linked to a computer and projector. Telegram photo illustration Photo by Terry Roberts/The Telegram

An iconic symbol of education in this province will soon be left in the dust.

By the start of the 2009-10 school year, it will be hard to find a dark green board attached to a classroom wall lined with pieces of chalk and felt erasers.

A push is on to replace chalkboards with whiteboards, a teaching aid that requires erasable markers instead of chalk. In some cases, schools are making the leap to state-of-the-art interactive "Smartboards" that are linked to computers and projectors. Some 200 of these have now been deployed to schools in eastern Newfoundland.

An iconic symbol of education in this province will soon be left in the dust.

By the start of the 2009-10 school year, it will be hard to find a dark green board attached to a classroom wall lined with pieces of chalk and felt erasers.

A push is on to replace chalkboards with whiteboards, a teaching aid that requires erasable markers instead of chalk. In some cases, schools are making the leap to state-of-the-art interactive "Smartboards" that are linked to computers and projectors. Some 200 of these have now been deployed to schools in eastern Newfoundland.

"It's the next big thing in classroom teaching," Dave Furey, a teacher at O'Donel high in Mount Pearl, said last week while instructing his physics class and writing formulas on a wall-mounted Smartboard.

There's a chalkboard in his class, but he rarely uses it.

It's a long way from the days of slate boards, one-room schools and buildings heated by woodstoves. Most educators, students and health experts are breathing a sigh of relief, knowing the dust and mess created by chalk scratching across the board will be eliminated.

It's long overdue and "completely necessary," said Dr. Mary Noseworthy, director of the pediatric respirology unit with Eastern Health. She said it's long been known that chalk dust is an irritant to children's airways and noses.

"It's one of the contributing factors to chronic respiratory symptoms in the pediatric population in our schools," she said.

The move away from chalk is just one component of an expensive program by the provincial government to improve air quality and ensure a clean environment in schools. The transition to whiteboards began in the late 1990s, at a time when money was tight. The transition has become more of a priority in recent years, as a government flush with cash from natural resources pumps millions into the school system.

Eastern School District, which manages 122 schools, will spend roughly $400,000 on the purchase and installation of whiteboards this year alone, said Darrin Pike, director of education. Some 500 chalkboards have been removed, with 800 or so remaining, he said.

"It's cleaner. It's modern. And it allows for better instructional practices," Pike stated.

The Western School District is even farther ahead, having replaced about 80 per cent of 1,100 chalkboards in 72 schools, said Brian Feltham, who's in charge of finance and administration with the district.

But just like during the introduction of computers into schools in the 1980s, the change is not universally welcomed. Some teachers, especially those late in their careers, are not keen to give up their chalkboards. At O'Donel, for example, only 12 teachers on a staff of 38 said they were eager to give up their chalkboards when polled by the administration last year, said school principal Michael Sutton.

"We're having some discussion about it, for sure," Sutton said.

O'Donel is one of those schools slated to lose its chalkboards in the coming months. It will have eight Smartboards by the end of the school year, and Sutton wonders if the money being used on whiteboards would be better spent on these multi-media boards.

"I think it's well-intentioned. Unfortunately, the Smartboard technology certainly seems to be the way to go," Sutton said, adding that "incredible strides" have been made in education in recent years.

Pike agreed that "Smartboards are the future," but at a cost of roughly $2,000 per unit, it will take "a number of years to get them in all the classrooms."

Some retired teachers question the necessity of replacing chalkboards. Doug Butt of Norman's Cove taught French and other courses for 30 years before retiring in 1997. Chalk dust would dry out the skin on his hands, but he never complained and felt it was "part of the workplace." He said students didn't complain and there were no issues with air quality.

"(Removing them is) a good idea, probably. I guess any dust in the lungs is not a good idea," he said.

The province's Auditor General John Noseworthy, criticized the Department of Education last month, stating in his annual report that not enough has been done to inspect for asbestos, replace carpets, monitor air quality consistently and get rid of chalkboards. He said the department should establish procedures to monitor air quality issues.

Burke said fixing air quality problems is a priority for the government and the removal of chalkboards is a small component of that. She acknowledged the province is not basing its decision on scientific evidence, but on the need to provide a clean environment.

"This is not a funding issue, it's a work issue," she said, referring to the demands on maintenance crews.

troberts@thetelegram.com