The pause on extracurricular activities in Toronto is to give its four large school boards time to deal with reopening after months of shutdowns and to get through the usual start-of-year class changes that, once settled, will allow for better contact tracing amid the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, says the city’s medical officer of health.
In an interview with the Star — and after an outcry from students, parents, coaches and even directors of education about the last-minute decision to nix after-school sports and clubs in September — Dr. Eileen de Villa characterized the move as more of a “gradual introduction of activities” when dealing with the largest school boards in the country.
“We are focusing first and foremost on all the activities that start up with the start of school … getting class groupings and cohorts organized … there is a little bit of movement that happens there and some settling that needs to happen,” she said.
And “because we are in the midst of a pandemic, they are also reintroducing some routines around infection prevention and control in order to ensure the health and safety of all those in the school environment,” she added.
“As part and parcel of that process, we wanted to help our school board partners ensure that schools have these routines well-established and well in hand, and then start to introduce some other activities, especially as the cohorts or the class groupings get more and more established because we know that with Delta, there are going to be cases.”
The four Toronto boards — public, Catholic, French public and French Catholic — alerted families to the change before the start of school, saying they were delaying all after-school sports and clubs at the behest of public health for at least the first month.
That caused some confusion and frustration, given the province’s chief medical officer of health gave the go-ahead for high-contact, indoor sports such as hockey and basketball. Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said any delay in sports and clubs should be temporary.
Meanwhile, neighbouring boards in Peel, York, Durham and Halton are starting up extracurriculars right away, even though Peel and York are currently reporting higher weekly caseloads per 100,000 than Toronto. Peel Public Health has said children need sports and clubs for their mental health and well-being after so much time learning from home, and also raised questions of equity given kids can pay and play in the community.
De Villa said she can’t speak to the other health units’ circumstances but, given the size of the local boards — the Toronto District School Board is the biggest in the country and among the top five in North America — “our context is a bit different even though they are next door.”
She said the late notice about the change followed new modelling from the province’s science table and talk of the need for fewer interactions to help keep COVID-19 in check, something echoed by Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada.
De Villa also said public health wants to ensure schools don’t have to revert to online learning again because of rising COVID-19 cases. “We really want to maintain that health and safety in order to sustain in-person learning, knowing how important that is,” she said.
As such, “we are really committed to what I would call a slow and cautious — but still very much strong — commitment to reintroducing all the activities. We want our kids to be enjoying as many activities as they can at school recognizing, in the context of a pandemic, that a cautious approach is warranted at this point.”
When asked why kids are still permitted to play sports in the community, she said it’s easier to readily identify cases and contact trace in those situations.
Toronto’s approach, she added, is “appropriate to the circumstances that we are seeing in front of us. We have to look at our context.”
And, she added, “we are absolutely committed to working with our school board partners to reintroduce activities in a gradual fashion, and a fashion that allows them to ensure that they are able to provide for the health and safety of all those in the community.”
De Villa would not give a date as to when extracurriculars could resume, only saying “we are just as eager as everyone else is see our kids enjoy a fulsome range of activities in as healthy and as safe a way as we can.”
However, it’s possible that outdoor sports could resume first and it’s up to the province to decide whether kids need to be vaccinated to take part in sports, as the Quebec government has mandated.
Brendan Browne, director of education for the Toronto Catholic board, has said if extracurriculars can resume soon, it’s possible to save early fall sports such as football, cross-country or field hockey.
“We really see this as temporary, so we are fully hopeful that we do have a full fall season, even if the season starts a little bit later,” Browne has told the Star, adding the extracurricular issue will be on the “top of the agenda” at the next meeting between directors of education and public health on Monday.
Windsor and Ottawa public health have also put a hold on extracurriculars for now.
Coaches say such a move puts youth athletes at a huge disadvantage.
In Toronto, 84 per cent of those ages 12 to 17 have had at least one COVID shot, and 75 per cent have had two.
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Extracurriculars aren’t dead in Toronto — it’s about a ‘gradual introduction of activities,’ says public health head Dr. Eileen de Villa