Concussions could officially become the responsibility of Ontario schools as a bill was introduced Tuesday that would require school boards to institute brain-injury prevention and management policies.
The proposed provincial legislation is believed to be unique in Canada because it puts the onus on schools to help prevent brain injuries and ensure the needs of students who sustain them are met. It would require boards to educate staff and parents, as well as monitor students' recovery so that they don't return to sports or academic pursuits too soon.
"Concussions are a reality in all of our schools across the country and there's no question that schools can play a more pro-active role," said Catherine Fife, president of the Ontario School Boards Association.
Ms. Fife's 13-year-old son, Aidan, has suffered two concussions, one on a hockey rink and the other last fall in the schoolyard.
Canada's national game is grappling with the troubling issue of head injuries for players of all ages and levels. The issue hasn't left the limelight since one of hockey's brightest stars, Sidney Crosby, was sidelined by a concussion.
Walter Gretzky, the father of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, was on hand Tuesday when the bill was tabled in the legislature .
During his son's career in the National Hockey League, Mr. Gretzky said, no one ever thought about head injuries.
"It's so wonderful that we're finally getting conscious of head injuries in sports and teaching kids about head injuries," he told The Globe and Mail. "At one time, it wasn't even talked about. It was no big deal."
He would like to see the bill introduced by Ontario's government apply to everybody, not just students. "What's the difference between getting hurt at school and getting hurt tonight playing minor hockey?"
Many U.S. jurisdictions have introduced concussion-specific laws, but most Canadian provinces have yet to tackle the issue. British Columbia is one of the exceptions, where a private member's bill, the proposed Concussions In Youth Sport Safety Act, got a first reading in November.
The B.C. bill, which was introduced by MLA and physician Moira Stilwell, would remove young athletes from play if a concussion is suspected and bar them from returning without a doctor's okay. B.C.'s bill would apply more broadly to all young athletes, not just students in public schools. But it stops at the edge of the playing field, and wouldn't affect how brain injuries are handled in the classroom.
Traditionally, after a brain injury, the emphasis has been on an athlete's return to sport, or return to play. Ontario is part of a growing movement that emphasizes an injured student's return to the classroom, or return to learn.
"There's growing evidence that establishing a return-to-learn plan after a concussion is as important as a return-to-play protocol," said Ontario's Minister of Education, Laurel Broten. "Although many school boards currently have some protocols with respect to return to play it's critical that we look at protocols for return-to-learn plans."
The Toronto District School Board was among the first to acknowledge education's role in brain-injury management. In light of mounting research that suggests the impacts of concussions are felt as much in the classroom as they are in the playing field, the board approved a new policy late last year.
It requires that staff continuously review and update their concussion prevention and management practices. More than 600 physical education and sport coaches have had mandatory brain-injury awareness training so far this school year.
Dr. Stilwell applauded Ontario's decision to ask school boards to develop policies such as the TDSB's.
"I think what they're doing is great," she said in a phone interview from Victoria. "I only wish we could be first to pass this kind of policy."