There’s disappointment all around after Toronto Public Health (TPH) officials told schools across the city to pause extracurricular activities — including sports and clubs — for the month of September.
Laura McIninch, who has two sons, aged eight and 11, said this decision disproportionately affects the kids whose only access to extracurricular activities is through school.
“For my boys, it will mean some disappointment for sure,” McIninch told CBC Toronto.
“It’s hard to explain to my son in Grade 6 why it’s safe for him to be in a classroom with 27 students, which in Toronto I think is actually considered quite small, but it’s not safe for him apparently to have an outdoor cross-country practice or to have an outdoor soccer game,” she added.
“They’ve been missing out on activities for so long and they’re so desperate to get out there and get active again for their physical health and for their mental health, and it’s just a really big disappointment I think for a lot of students in the Toronto boards.”
Last Wednesday, the Toronto public and Catholic boards advised parents that TPH had placed the pause on extracurricular activities.
McIninch believes the TPH went about this the wrong way.
“My preference would be that public health work with the school boards to provide them with tools and information to be able to run these programs smoothly rather than just a knee-jerk reaction to cancel them,” she said.
“We have so much information now, they can be outside, they can be masked, we can use rapid tests, there’s so much information and it doesn’t feel right for kids to lose out on another year of activities when their health and wellbeing should really be the priority at this point.”
Important to students’ mental health
Following last week’s announcement, MarkusI de Domenico, a Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) trustee for Ward 2, Etobicoke Centre, put forward an amendment requesting that the board contact TPH to let them know how important extracurricular activities are to the mental, emotional and physical health of students.
“I am a supporter of TPH but feel we need to represent a holistic approach to this issue and how it affects the education community,” de Domenico wrote in an email to CBC News.
He said the motion passed 9-0 requesting the TCDSB communicate with Toronto Public Health to advocate for the earliest possible return to extracurricular and athletic events.
“Parents, students and educators want a return to extracurricular/sports as soon as is safely possible,” de Domenico said.
This interval of gradual reintroduction is important, given that we know the Delta variant is circulating in the community and the Ontario Science Table recently recommended that residents reduce their contacts to limit COVID-19 spread– Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health
In a statement to CBC News on Monday, TPH said it understands the value and benefits of in-person learning for both children and their families, and is hoping to preserve the in-school learning environment with as few interruptions as possible.
Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vinita Dubey said based on the current local situation, TPH recommended a “gradual reintroduction” of extracurricular activities.
“Once infection prevention and control practices become routine and cohorts are more established, the gradual reintroduction of extracurricular activities can occur in as safe a manner as possible, including recording extracurricular cohort attendance,” Dubey wrote in an email.
“If there are exposures related to an activity, it will also allow TPH to quickly identify high-risk contacts through case and contact management, to prevent further spread of COVID-19,” she added.
“This interval of gradual reintroduction is important, given that we know the delta variant is circulating in the community and the Ontario Science Table recently recommended that residents reduce their contacts to limit COVID-19 spread,” Dubey added.
Dubey said TPH will continue to closely monitor the local COVID-19 indicators and update its guidance as needed.
‘My heart goes out to those young people’
Meanwhile, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she is aware kids, parents and families are disappointed with this decision.
“My heart goes out to those young people who want to get back to their organized sports, who want to start having fun again,” Horwath said Monday.
“We all know that the exercise and fitness and group activities have very, very positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing, so my heart goes out to those children and those young people [and] those families.”
But Horwath said she respects decisions by public health experts.
An opportunity to develop character
Charles Pascal, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a former deputy minister of education, said the importance of extracurricular activities cannot be overemphasized.
“It’s an opportunity to develop character, self confidence and a healthy way of moving forward in your life,” Pascal told CBC News.
“So, it’s extremely important and yet some leaders at the local level don’t believe things are as safe as they need to be,” he added.
“Extracurricular activities basically are led by educators and other education workers who, in addition to what they do in the classroom, they give their passionate and devoted time to extracurriculars to support the kids that they care about.”